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New law may encourage genetic testing

Category: DNA, Paternity and Genetic testing

Last month the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which bans unfair employment policies based on genetic background, took effect. Health officials and commentators believe the law, which was signed by President Bush in 2008, may improve access to genetic testing, which can help prevent and treat a variety of diseases.

Physicians commonly use DNA tests to screen patients for genes which may put them at a higher risk of developing diseases like cancer or chronic heart failure.

However, according to the New York Times, there have been reports of workers being denied jobs or being fired because the employee had a family history of Huntington's disease or a gene that predisposed him or her to certain types of cancer.

Others with family histories of various diseases have had trouble buying health insurance.

In a survey administered by the Department of Labor, a total of 63 percent of respondents said they would not undergo genetic testing if they knew employers and insurers had access to the results, according to the Times.

GINA, however, prohibits employers from asking for genetic tests or factoring an employee's hereditary background into hiring, firing and promotion decisions and forbids discrimination by health insurance providers.

"It doesn’t matter who's asking for genetic information - if it's the employer or the insurer - the point is you can't ask for it," John Stivarius Jr, an Atlanta business lawyer, told the news source.

Though some insurance companies and business groups claim the new law represents a burden, in requiring employers to remove any information about family history in employee records, only one Congress member voted against GINA.

According to the Times, the law may advance genetic science by encouraging more people to participate in DNA testing, giving scientists more opportunities for research.

Peggy Mastroianni, a lawyer for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told the news source, "The message to employees is they should now be able to get whatever genetic counseling or testing they need and be less fearful about doing so."

Success in diagnostics

Though GINA took effect just weeks ago, the ways in which genetic testing can assist physicians in diagnosing curable diseases has long been documented.

In September, doctors at the National Cancer Institute found that, unlike most forms of cancer which are caused by genetic mutations, a rare bone cancer is the result of a unique gene duplication.

Chordoma, a familial cancer which produces tumors at the base of the skull or on the spinal column, currently has no cure and few effective treatments. The growths are believed to originate from remnants of the notochord, an embryonic precursor of the spinal column.

According to the Chrodoma Foundation, the average duration of survival after diagnosis of the bone disease is five to seven years.

Because the disease is hereditary, researchers launched an examination of the genetic material of large families with a history of the disease through several generations to investigate its causes.

Scientists found that in four of the seven families studied, all individuals with the disease expressed a second copy of the "T gene," which is related to notochord development.

Dr Rose Yang one of the study's lead authors, commented, "Chordomas in the three families without T gene duplications may result from mutations of other genes or an as yet unidentified process."

The research team suggested that T-gene duplications create an increased risk of the bone cancer and will be valuable in identifying cancer development.

Similar studies have determined that DNA tests may play a valuable role in diagnosing liver, lung, breast and pancreatic cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and certain eye diseases which can increase the risk of blindness in children.

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