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Expert questions uses of DNA testing

07 October 2009

Should DNA be used to determine the nationality of asylum seekers? How will the NHS cope with patients concerned about results of over the counter genetic tests?

These are just two of the current controversies to be considered at a major international conference starting today (Wednesday, 7th October), hosted by Cardiff University.

‘Mapping the Genomic Era: Measurements and Meanings’ will look at the varied uses DNA testing is now being put to, and ask whether the results and their consequences are clearly understood.

The meeting has been organised by the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Cesagen centre, based at Cardiff and Lancaster Universities. Cesagen is part of the wider ESRC Genomic Network, established to examine the social and economic consequences surrounding the development and use of genomics.

Cesagen Director and conference organiser, Professor Ruth Chadwick said: "We are constantly being measured, and in various ways. Cholesterol level and waist measurement, for example, are classic indicators of health risks. But now we have entered the genomic era, we are beginning to see the increasing pervasiveness of DNA tests in our everyday life."

But what do all these measurements mean? Are they appropriate? Or is there a danger that technology will be misused or its results misinterpreted? The conference will examine all these questions.

"It is very important that we have a clear understanding of how precise and useful genomic-based measurements really are, in order to safeguard and promote the interests of people in different areas of life whether they are a patient or an asylum seeker" Professor Chadwick added.

The three day gathering is the annual conference of the ESRC Council's Genomics Network. Organised by Cesagen at Cardiff, it brings together social and natural scientists with policy makers and commentators from across the globe.

The conference follows last week’s news that the UK Border Agency is using DNA testing to try to establish where migrants into the UK are from. Professor Chadwick commented that producing valid information on differences between individuals requires very large scale population wide research.

One project which does operate on such a large scale, and will be highlighted at the conference, is the UK Biobank - a major medical research initiative which aims to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses.

One of Biobank’s advocates is Welsh rugby union legend and former orthopaedic surgeon JPR Williams, who will deliver an after dinner speech at the conference. He has recently been involved in promoting participation in the Welsh arm of the project.

A major conference highlight is a talk by Sir Martin Evans - winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on embryonic stem cells - who will address some of the issues raised by using these cells as a source of therapeutic cells for regenerative medicine.

Another key talk will look at personalised medicine and the reshaping of healthcare, in the light of concerns that increasing sales of genetic testing via the internet may soon overburden the NHS, as consumers approach their GPs for explanations of the results.

Further sessions will look at synthetic biology, non-invasive prenatal testing; public expectations of genomic science, and the translation of genomic research into public health policy.

1. 'Mapping the Genomic Era: Measurements and Meanings' takes place at Cardiff City Hall, Cardiff, between 7th -9th October 2009. The programme is available at:

2. The ESRC Genomics Network

The ESRC Genomics Network was launched in 2002 to examine the social and economic consequences surrounding the development and use of genomics, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Genomics Network is one of the ESRC's largest social science investments. The Network consists of: Cesagen (ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics) a Cardiff-Lancaster collaboration led by Professor Ruth Chadwick; Egenis (ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society) headed by Professor John Dupré at Exeter; and Innogen (ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics) - collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Open University, directed by Professor David Wield; and the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, led by Professor Steve Yearley, Professor of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at University of Edinburgh.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

4. Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Visit the University website at:

Dave Stevens (Tel: +44 (0) 845 257 5388, or Emma

Capewell ( Tel: +44 (0) 7967 819277

Media places are limited so if you wish to attend, please contact Flo Ticehurst (Tel: +44 (0) 29 20870024 email, or during the conference: +44 (0) 7971 021207).