- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Protecting every American from genetic discrimination is a long overdue gift to the nation. After 12 years of debate, Congress is at last poised to deliver this gift.

The sequencing of the human genome is leading to revolutionary advances in our understanding of the causes of disease. Four years after completing the Human Genome Project, we are witnessing the dawn of the era of personalized medicine.

The discovery of genetic variants that contribute to risk of common diseases will continue to grow rapidly during the next few years, offering better opportunities for individualized, preventive medicine. Already, health-care providers can test for DNA patterns that predispose some of us to cancer, and soon this will be possible for diabetes, heart disease and other common diseases. Doctors will also soon be able to prescribe medicines and treatments based on our own individual genetics. Pharmacogenomics will better equip doctors to give the right medicine to the right patient at the right dose and, by avoiding giving treatments to patients who would suffer a negative reaction, save both lives and money.

The arrival of this new era, however, is being delayed by widespread public fear of genetic discrimination. Individuals worry that genetic predisposition to a particular disease will deny them access to health care or employment. These fears are not unwarranted. This issue affects all of us; there are no perfect specimens at the DNA level. Each of us carries gene variants that increase risk of developing one disease or another; each of us is at risk for genetic discrimination.

A recent independent survey conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center showed that more than 90 percent of Americans support the use of genetic testing by doctors to identify a person’s risk for future disease. But nearly all Americans (93 percent) believe that health insurers should not be able to use genetic test results about increased risk of future disease to deny or limit insurance or charge higher prices. Similarly, 93 percent felt that employers should not be able to use genetic information to make hiring or promotion decisions.

Not only do these fears discourage Americans from using genetic tests that could personally benefit them, but they risk delaying the arrival of new medical breakthroughs. At the National Institutes of Health, fear of genetic discrimination is the most commonly cited reason for declining to participate in research that includes potentially lifesaving genetic tests for cancer: over one-third of eligible participants decline on this basis.

In the past, lawmakers have come close to providing Americans the protections they seek. Two years ago, with the support of the Bush administration, the Senate passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2005 by a 98-0 vote. Progress in the House was slower. Despite 244 cosponsors, including 117 Republicans, the bill never came to a House vote in the 109th Congress.

In this Congress, the 110th, House and the Senate champions have taken up genetic nondiscrimination with even greater determination. All the House and Senate committees involved have already held hearings on the bill, and the leadership has signaled a commitment to moving S 358 and HR 493 to a vote. President Bush has strongly restated his support. The time is right to put the needed protections in place.

Without protection from genetic discrimination, we risk missing out on the promise of personalized medicine. But if we apply time-honored principles of fairness and justice to the genome era, we can grant the American public the gift of better-informed patients, better-equipped providers, an enhanced biotech industry, improved health and lives saved.

Let’s not withhold the gift any longer. Let’s empower all Americans to embrace the possibilities of personalized medicine for better health. And let’s commend the forward-thinking bipartisanship of the 110th Congress that has brought us to the threshold of a world where Americans can embrace personalized medicine without fear.

Our health, and that of our children and grandchildren, depends on it.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, is founder of the Center for Health Transformation. Robert Egge is a project director at the center.

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