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Senate outlaws genetic discrimination

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The US Senate has unanimously voted in favour of a bill to ban genetic discrimination by insurance companies and employers in a bid to speed up research on inherited diseases.

Senators backed the bill 95 to none in a ballot yesterday.

It's not the first time Congress has tried to ban DNA discrimination, and the bill still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives. Business lobbyists have warned that new laws could prompt a flood of lawsuits.

Veteran democrat Ted Kennedy, meanwhile, has described the legislation as "the first major new civil rights bill of the new century".

It's hoped that forbidding insurance companies to discriminate on genetic grounds will help foster greater participation in research. Campaigners for the laws argue that consumers fear their DNA being obtained by big business and used against them, which has hamstrung efforts to develop therapies for inherited diseases.

Dr Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health - the US equivalent of the Medical Research Council - welcomed the news, AP reports.

"A system that allows that information to be used to deny people health care or a job is a system that has lost its way," he said. "This is a civil rights issue and it's high time we took care of it."

Earlier efforts to bring in laws have been blocked by procedural difficulties in Congress and arguments over lawsuit fears in business. A deal struck last week saw the new bill amended to discourage too many claims. It makes it clear that insurance companies are still able to discriminate on the basis of the presence of disease, even if it is inherited.

Sponsors of the bill in the House of Representatives said they expect to win approval this time, as soon as possible.

The UK has no laws against genetic discrimination. Insurance companies have voluntarily signed a moratorium until 2011. More here, from Genewatch UK. ®

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