A People's History of the Human Genome

Posted by Pete Shanks June 30, 2010
Biopolitical Times
Dr Helen Wallace<br>of Genewatch UK

Genewatch UK marked the 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project announcement by publishing an extraordinary History of the Human Genome that includes important current policy implications. It runs to 17 tightly-packed pages, with a further 12 pages of references (303 of them). The pdf is available here, with a summary in Genewatch’s press release here.

The timeline reaches back to 1918, when "Eugenicist Ronald Fisher publishes a mathematical paper showing how common diseases might be caused by genetic susceptibility to environmental exposures," which becomes the initial basis for calculating the "heritability" of diseases (later criticized by Richard Lewontin and others). History of the Human Genome covers in detail the tobacco industry's attempts to obfuscate the links between smoking and cancer by arguing for genetic predispositions both to smoke and (separately) to get cancer. It also notes many other attempts to find genes for cancer, obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

The report connects these essentially false theories with the massive "gravy train of funding for the human genome" -- and with the centralization of medical records, systems for storing babies' DNA at birth, and also the research goals of companies such as 23andMe:

Billions in taxpayers' money has been wasted in both Britain and the USA, and medical privacy has been jeopardised, in an attempt to create the vast databases of electronic medical records linked to DNA that will supposedly allow scientists to 'predict and prevent' disease. ...

The private healthcare and food industries are promoting a new vision of healthcare in which people will have their genomes sequenced in supermarkets and stored on mobile phones. Healthy people will be marketed bar-coded functional foods - such as cholesterol-lowering margarines and probiotic yoghurts - and other health tests, advice and treatments, which are claimed to be tailored to their genetic risks of future diseases. Sequencing everyone's DNA linked to their name and address stored in electronic medical records would also allow the Government to track every individual and identify their relatives.

Dr Helen Wallace, the Executive Director of Genewatch UK (which should not be confused with the Council for Responsible Genetics, which publishes the newsletter GeneWatch), concludes that:

"Vested interests have fatally corrupted the medical research agenda. Companies want to data-mine your DNA and market healthy people misleading risk assessments and associated products: this is not medical research. Having your genome sequenced is not good for your health: the big risks for most diseases are not inside your genes but in the world outside."

Previously on Biopolitical Times: