Genome test slammed for assessing ‘racial purity’

by jeeg 12. June 2012 20:17

Officials in Hungary united this week to condemn ongoing ethnic violence

and anti-Semitic attacks, including an assault on the former Chief Rabbi

on 5 June. But a cause for further soul-searching has emerged: a

scientific scandal recalling discredited notions of racial purity.


Hungary’s Medical Research Council (ETT), which advises the government

on health policy, has asked public prosecutors to investigate a

genetic-diagnostic company that certified that a member of parliament

did not have Roma or Jewish heritage.


The MP in question is a member of the far-right Jobbik party, which won

17% of the votes in the general election of April 2010. He apparently

requested the certificate from the firm Nagy Gén Diagnostic and

Research, which rents office space at the prestigious Eötvös Loránd

University in Budapest. The company produced the document in September

2010, a few weeks before local elections.



The certificate — with the MP’s name blacked out — emerged on the web

last month and was seized on by the Hungarian media. One of Nagy Gén’s

financial partners, Tibor Benedek — a three-time Olympic water-polo gold

medallist and a member of a prominent Jewish family — immediately pulled

out of the company.


The ETT’s secretary, József Mandl, chair of medical chemistry at the

Semmelweis University in Budapest, says that the certificate is

“professionally wrong, ethically unacceptable — and illegal”. The

council discussed the issue on 7 June and concluded that the genetic

test violates the 2008 Law on Genetics, which allows such testing only

for health purposes.


“The council’s stand is important,” says Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe

and Balkans researcher at civil-rights group Human Rights Watch, who is

based in Amsterdam. In Hungary, “there have been many violent crimes

against Roma and acts of anti-Semitism in the past few years”, she says.

Politicians who try to use genetic tests to prove they are ‘pure’

Hungarian fan the flames of racial hatred, she adds.


Nagy Gén scanned 18 positions in the MP’s genome for variants that it

says are characteristic of Roma and Jewish ethnic groups; its report

concludes that Roma and Jewish ancestry can be ruled out. The

certificate adds: “For an interpretation of the test result and for

genetic consultation relating to the family-tree research, please

contact us as soon as convenient.”


Nagy Gén did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests from Nature

for comment. But a statement on its website claims that newspapers had

reported the story “incompletely” and points to the certificate’s

recommendation for further consultation. It argues that the company

“rejects all forms of discrimination, so it has no right to judge the

purpose for which an individual will use his or her test result, and so

for ethical reasons it could not have refused to carry out the test”.


The certificate first appeared on a right-wing website, which described

the intention behind the gene test as “noble”, although it questioned

the science. After the news blog Petőfi utca republished the certificate

on 14 May, the Hungarian Society of Human Genetics issued a statement

condemning the test. István Raskó, director of the Institute of Genetics

of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, and the society’s

vice-president, says that it is impossible to deduce origins from

genetic variations at a few places in the genome. “This test is complete

nonsense and the affair is very harmful to the profession of clinical

genetics,” he says.


Nagy Gén’s rental contract with Eötvös Loránd University ended this

month, says György Fábri, a university spokesman. “The university is not

commenting publicly on the affair because it is not our business — our

researchers had no contact with the company.” In a written statement he

added that the university “fully rejects” the abuse of scientific

results to promote discrimination or hatred.


Allison Abbott, Nature


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