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Three views of genetics: the enthusiast, the visionary, and the sceptic

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7293.1016 (Published 28 April 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1016
  1. Tessa Richards
  1. spoke to three specialists with differing opinions

    Making genetics everyone's business

    The government's plan to boost genetics is welcome news to John Burn, director of the Northern Genetics Service, Newcastle upon Tyne

    The government's portrayal last week of the United Kingdom as “genetics valley” is a shot in the arm for its geneticists. Here was the ailing NHS being described by the health secretary as “uniquely placed to maximise the health benefits of the genetics advances.” And along with the rhetoric came a pledge of £30m ($42m) to double the number of specialist geneticists and extend their services (see p 1018).

    No wonder Professor Burn, director of the Northern Genetics Service, at Newcastle University, is positive. After 27 years in the field, he shares the view that the NHS offers unique opportunities to conduct clinical research and develop comprehensive services. He also welcomes what he describes as “the endorsement of clinical geneticists as the leaders in the move to bring genetics out of specialised centres into everyday practice.”

    Behind closed doors in genetic circles, there has been an unproductive and at times acrimonious dispute about professional boundaries. The genetics revolution has seen molecular geneticists, public health physicians, primary care doctors, physicians, and surgeons rapidly moving into erstwhile specialist geneticist “territory.”

    While some have railed, Professor Burn has adopted what he calls the Dodge City principle. “If you have a rifle and a horse, you get a badge to join the posse.” Whatever his methods—and I suspect drive, charm, and guile are there somewhere—he has clearly been successful in capturing the enthusiasm and skills of different specialists to build up his multidisciplinary genetics unit.

    While discussions continue about who takes the whip hand, it is evident that concerted action is needed. As genetic testing for rare inherited diseases is extended—and there is a prospect of DNA profiling before drug treatment and …

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