EnGENEering the future

Biotech revolution spawns vocal opposition, as science enters brave new world - with ethical debate trailing far behind.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Young people in monarch-butterfly costumes darted about the crowd, and white-coated "scientists" gave suspicious injections to giant vegetables. The street theater at the rally in Boston's Copley Square last week was full of pointed good humor, but the speeches against biotechnology were deadly serious.

Just down the street, the BIO 2000 Conference welcomed more than 10,000 scientists and businessmen to what one termed "not Beantown but Genetown." The industry is grabbing the global spotlight, raising a stunning $8 billion on the stock market this year, but taking some blows from growing public resistance to genetically modified crops.

Most people agree on the potential of the biotechnology revolution to radically transform society. But views vary widely on how much it will be for good or for ill, and who should have a say in influencing the directions it takes.

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The industry tends to see public concerns as resulting primarily from lack of information. "Less than half of Americans over 18 know anything about biotechnology," Dan Eramian, vice president of communications for Biotechnology Industry Organization, told one session. "We just haven't communicated." BIO has initiated an ad campaign with the theme: "Biotechnology, a big word that means hope."

Indeed, insiders - exulting in the dazzling breakthroughs and in what they see as "the biotechnology century" - feel they are on the cusp of a new world with untold benefits for everyone. As one company president enthused, "If we are successful, everything will change - our health, our food, ourselves."

The 1,500 protesters who showed up in Boston for a "counter-conference" to the industry meeting, called Biodevastation 2000, held sessions on dangers posed by various biotechnologies and efforts of nongovernmental groups to counter them. They see an industry driven by visions of tremendous profits, rushing into a brave new world with huge risks to health and the environment and insufficient government oversight. Some feel decisions are being made without the public involvement demanded by a democratic society.

"The biotechnology industry is making decisions that affect all life on Earth, and they're doing it behind closed doors," says Brian Tokar of the Institute for Social Ecology. "They have no right to control our seeds, our genes, and our future." Activists working to build a grassroots movement included farmers, consumers, geneticists, public-interest lawyers, and disabled and indigenous people from several states and countries.

Theirs, however, are not the only voices seeking to be heard. Ever since the cloning of the sheep Dolly, with its implications for human cloning, public interest groups, and particularly religious communities, have expressed deep concerns about the unprecedented ethical and social issues that biotechnology raises.

And recently, even a star member of the gung-ho technology world has added his voice to the chorus. In the current issue of Wired magazine, Bill Joy, computer wizard and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems - deeply troubled by the unique ways in which genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology could get out of control and pose a threat to the human species - urges scientists to relinquish the right to push forward in certain areas even though they know how.

While nuclear power could be carefully controlled by the military and required difficult-to-obtain resources, he says, these technologies are commercially driven and require only knowledge that is broadly available. "The new Pandora's boxes ... are almost open," he adds. "Yet we seem hardly to have noticed."

Indeed, the breakthroughs come at such a pace from various parts of the world that even scientists are taken by surprise. And it seems problematic that the ethical debate will ever fully catch up.

Both the president's National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) and BIO have publicly called for broad public discussion of the issues. But it's far from clear in what venues the discussions will flourish. NBAC has held hearings on cloning and the ethics related to research on human stem cells and human biological materials. Bioethics conferences are held at some universities. Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO, the industry trade association, says he and his staff meet regularly with all sorts of organizations.

Religious and industry leaders have engaged in meetings set up by groups such as the Hastings Center and the Templeton Foundation. Mark Hanson, who led such sessions at the Hastings Center to discuss patenting and cloning, says they reflected "a great deal of misunderstanding between the secular and religious worlds."

Both have work to do for dialogue to be fruitful, says Dr. Hanson, now at the Center for Practical Ethics at the University of Montana at Missoula. Religious communities need to "identify and research the theological dimensions of genetic technologies," and industry leaders "should educate themselves about the range of values questions" raised by their technologies and "resist the temptation ... to approach moral and religious issues merely as marketing or communication problems."

Some industry voices are encouraging "ever-greater engagement with the public." Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, told his colleagues, "There has been an explosion of issues in the past year, and we don't have the trust of the public." Ticking off issues such as gene patenting, diagnostic testing, and therapies that could produce "designer children," Dr. Lander emphasized the need to engage in thoughtful discussion, and to be seen to have that discussion "in good faith."

Biotech agriculture has become a lesson in how not to do this. The intense public backlash in Europe and Japan - and some in the US - against genetically modified (GM) crops and foods has had such impact that farmers are expected to reduce their plantings by as much as 25 percent this year. Worldwatch Institute says: "Stock prices for companies are falling, exports ... are tumbling, and questions are mounting about the liability for what is turning into a major debacle for farmers."

A class-action suit on the part of farmers has been filed against Monsanto, charging inadequate testing and an attempt to monopolize the seed industry. Another suit has been filed against the Food and Drug Administration by the Iowa-based Alliance for Bio-Integrity, charging misrepresentation of risks and a violation of federal law that requires demonstrated safety before marketing.

Industry representatives throw up their hands in disbelief, saying they've tested their products for years. Mr. Feldbaum says, "They're trying to make a case based on people's fears, not on a shred of evidence. Can people point to a single instance of even an allergic reaction" to such foods, he asks. One illustration to the contrary, he adds, is that 90 percent of today's cheeses are actually made purer by using a GM enzyme rather than the scrapings from calves' stomachs.

Still, the extent of testing has become an issue. Studies showing potential dangers to monarch butterflies and to soil organisms from transgenic corn have led the Environmental Protection Agency to consider broader testing. The FDA held a set of public meetings at the end of 1999 on whether its policy for ensuring safety of bioengineered foods should be modified. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives would put foods through a premarket approval process. And bills to mandate labeling have been proposed in Congress and 14 state legislatures.

Mr. Eramian acknowledges that in terms of public perception, the industry's "most important challenge is the development of trust." The question of trust is most challenging when it comes to human genetics, where the use of fetal tissue in research and the patenting of life forms have already outraged many.

The death last year of Jesse Gelsinger, a young participant in a gene-therapy experiment, revealed lax procedures on the part of researchers. Soon after, it was learned that more than 650 "serious adverse events" had occurred in other experiments which had not been reported as required.

Some critics say gene therapy is being hyped for commercial reasons, that the relation between DNA and observable traits is much more complex. Ruth Hubbard, of the Council on Responsible Genetics, in Cambridge, Mass., speaks of the "fallacies of genetic determinism - that genes are causes and their malfunction the basis of disease. Nothing depends on the function of a single gene," she says. "Genes are not autonomous."

Most troubling to many, along with cloning, is the capability that now exists for "germ-line interventions," in which genetic modifications would be passed on to children. It is now being done with animals, but a voluntary moratorium exists on human germ-line research. "While I'm not willing to rule it out forever," Lander says, "I'd like to ban it now. I wouldn't want some cowboy to do it in the next five to 10 years." Others, however, have begun to describe future scenarios that include it, along with clear societal divisions between the "GenRich" and the "Naturals."

Using genetics for human enhancement rather than therapeutics poses huge ethical dilemmas. Eric Parens, an associate at the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., says no institution in the US today is constituted as a forum for discussing such big-picture issues. The center hopes to begin a project that would help fill that vacuum.

"The risks are huge," Dr. Parens says. "I'm surprised by how little attention these developments have received.... Nobody is educating people, and it's crucially important that we have a public conversation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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