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Estonia to DNA test 1 in 10 citizens to give lifestyle advice

9 April 2018
Appeared in BioNews 944

Estonia is offering a free DNA test to 10 percent of its population to identify people at risk of developing certain diseases, in the first state-sponsored personal genetic information service. 

The aim of the initiative, developed between the Ministry of Social Affairs, the National Institute for Health Development and the Estonian Genome Centre at the University of Tartu, is to give lifestyle advice to participants who have a genetic risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, to prevent future illness. 

The DNA of 100,000 participants will be tested for 600,000 genetic variants linked to common diseases. Additionally, variants that predict adverse reactions to painkillers and antidepressants, will also be tested for in the initiative, launched on 20 March. More than 10,000 participants have already signed up for the service. 

'Today we have enough knowledge about both the genetic risk of complex diseases and the interindividual variability of the effects of medicines in order to start using this information systematically in everyday healthcare,' said Jevgeni Ossinovski, Minister of Health and Labour.

National databases of participants' genetic information do already exist in other countries, such as the UK BioBank, but the genetic information stored there is anonymised and used for medical research, meaning participants do not receive personal feedback.

Participants in Estonia's programme can choose which information about their DNA they will receive. Their family doctor will give them advice about the results, and whether preventive measures such as lifestyle changes or taking medicines can be helpful.

However, critics of the initiative worry that the information from genetic profiling is often complex and difficult to interpret. 'This may well create more questions than answers for those who take part, and in some cases great anxiety,' Hugh Whittall, Director of the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics, told New Scientist.

The Estonian Government is set to spend 5 million euros on the initiative this year. The plan is to roll out this programme to all Estonia's citizens, if this initial trial period is successful. 

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