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The Genetic Code Book: Helpful or Harmful?

Scientists are expected to reveal next week the first fruits of mapping the human genome, dubbed the "genetic code book." Some people, however, fear that the information could be used unethically. CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston has the story.

Scientists with the Human Genome Project will release a report Monday on their comprehensive analysis of the genetic code. The report is expected to lead to a new understanding of diseases and to eventually revolutionize the ability to determine genetic traits.

"None of us expected that here in 2001 we would be looking at our entire instruction book, deriving the first set of lessons from it," says Francis Collins, MD, of the Human Genome Project.

The excitement surrounding the project, however, is tempered by growing concern over how some companies are attempting to use the information.

In the first federal case of its kind, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing a corporation, Burlington Northern Railroad, for allegedly requiring genetic testing of employees who file claims alleging carpal tunnel syndrome injuries.

"We allege and we suspect that Burlington Northern is using genetic tests to try to figure out whether somebody has a genetic marker for a particular condition, in this case, carpal tunnel syndrome," says Paul Miller, commissioner of the EEOC.

The railroad's act, says the EEOC, is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Burlington Northern denies any discrimination but admits asking for the tests to "insure that the action the employee is claiming is something that took place on the work site and not something that had been part of the person's makeup."

Determining genetic makeup is the goal of the Human Genome Project. Such knowledge could clearly benefit humankind, but it could also be harmful.

"It should provide us with an opportunity to prevent and treat terrible diseases, but it can also be used in discriminatory ways for which protections are not currently in place," says Collins.

Currently, 25 states prohibit use of genetic information for workplace decisions. Experts say similar legislation is needed for the entire nation.
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