Berlin meeting will examine treaty to safeguard gene use

International lawyers will examine a proposed treaty designed to prevent the misuse of human genetic information when they meet in Berlin this month.

If the proposals, developed by the International Bar Association's medicine and law committee, are approved at the IBA conference in Berlin, they will be presented to the United Nations next year.

The treaty considers what sort of legal protection is needed against abuses of the science as genetic screening tests become readily available worldwide.

The committee is particularly concerned with the implications genetic information could have for insurance policies and employment and privacy rights. It has examined the extent to which private individuals should be able to patent what they discover about their genes.

It has also discussed genetic discrimination and the use of human genome information (the full set of chromosomes of an individual) in developing health treatments and therapies.

The treaty has been developed over the past five years in conjunction with the Human Genome Project, which involves the investigations of a worldwide cooperative of scientists into genetic information.

Martine Rothblatt, chair of the IBA's medicine and law committee, said several instances of abuse had already been reported.

“Only the most advanced legal systems, like those in the European Union and the US, are likely to have national legal protection against abuses. The purpose of the treaty is to make sure that all the people in the world have the benefit of legal protection,” she said.

Committee co-chair Paul Honigmann said: “It is important that these issues are addressed in an international forum because they know no frontiers.”

The IBA conference runs from 21 to 25 October.