Insurer gene test access could deter people at risk

In collaboration with the Press Association

The results of genetic tests should be disclosed to insurance companies so they can assess the health risks of applicants, according to a leading bioethics expert.

But Cancer Research UK expressed concern that such a move would discourage people from taking such tests to assess their cancer risk.

According to Professor Soren Holm, an expert at Cardiff Law School, genetic information is not special. "It is not inherently more specific, predictive, sensitive or private than other kinds of health information," the professor insisted.

He went on to say that the only way to stop insurers from seeking access to genetic test results would be to refuse them access to all health information, meaning that insurers would only be able to take general risk markers, such as age and occupation, into account when calculating premiums.

Although he conceded that some people might be deterred from getting tested for genes if they thought their premiums might increase, Professor Holm pointed out that this was the same for other health information, such as HIV tests. But Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, commented: "We passionately oppose any barrier to people making use of advances in research, such as the identification of genes that affect cancer risk.

"Our concern is that people with a family history of breast cancer, for example, would be dissuaded from being tested for the BRCA genes if they thought a positive result would lead to higher insurance premiums." Dr Walker said that, while BRCA genes are reliable indicators of a person's risk of developing certain cancers, the field of genetic testing is "still at a relatively early stage". "Cancer Research UK supports the current moratorium on genetics and insurance because it allows time for the science to explore more fully the long-term medical implications," she continued.

"But all patients treated within the NHS should have the right to take genetic tests free from the fear of unfair genetic discrimination in the future."

The debate has been triggered by the announcement earlier this week of the discovery of new genetic variants for a range of common diseases, including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 and type 2 diabetes and Crohn's disease.