Shaping a genetic revolution

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The "smart mice" with more memory (from Princeton labs) are touted as leading eventually to brainier humans. Then five little piggies (with cute names, of course) are cloned to go to market for organ transplants. Biotech stories now frequent the front pages, and along with the marvels (and sometimes hype), they almost always conjure up perplexing questions. Here are some of the issues that stir controversy over biotechnology developments:

Patenting of genes: Who owns life?

Biotech companies have patented thousands of gene sequences in what some have called "the latest Gold Rush." Firms say patents are essential to spur the financial investment needed to develop technologies that will save lives and improve health. Some religious and other groups object, saying genes should not be "owned" in the way patenting allows, which encourages commodification and a reductionist view of life. Others argue that the Supreme Court case that opened the way for patents was based on a mistake, breaking with historical precedent which said products of nature could not be patented. So many patents are being approved that it may become too complex to uphold.

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Genetic testing

Diagnostic testing and screening are now most common with pregnant women and babies, and in law enforcement, but are expected to become a widespread practice. Pressures are likely to develop from insurers and other institutions for genetic information - and for people to subscribe to therapies so as not to pass on genes associated with bad outcomes. Many see the potential for a resurgence of eugenics. Some in medicine worry about genetic determinism, just as medicine begins to move away from reductionism toward a more holistic view, including aspects of spirituality.

Genetically engineered medicine

Some 100 drugs and vaccines are on the market and 350 in the last stages of trials. The industry sees a genetic basis for many diseases and promises cures for chronic illnesses. Gene-therapy experiments have been conducted for years. The death of at least one participant and adverse effects on several hundred others have sparked a debate about the safety of experiments and the need for greater reporting and public disclosure of data.

With the prospect that drugs and therapies will be costly, some say only the rich will benefit, and that resources might be better spent on other forms of preventive care and public health needs with broader impact.

Xenotransplantation

Genetic modification of animals, particularly pigs, is seen as the current answer to the lack of organs for thousands of people awaiting transplants. One firm says 50,000 pigs a year would be needed to meet the demand in the United Kingdom alone. A multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry for cloned pigs is expected to develop. Critics raise animal-rights issues, point to the threat of introducing new diseases into the human population, and say much more could be done to procure human organs.

Extending life

In the new field of anti-aging research, human cells would be used to build spare body parts, and parts "that never grow old." Enthusiasts are pushing for more government funding and less interference. At a recent conference in Philadelphia, scientists, theologians, and bioethicists debated with some intensity whether biomedicine should try to "cure dying." They posed questions on the meaning of life, the social good and bad that might result, who would have access to therapies, and the possible impact on limited medical resources.

Genetically modified (GM) foods

Issues include safety, environmental impact, and labeling to allow consumer choice. More than half the acreage of corn, soybeans, and canola in the US and Canada are transgenic, and 60 to 70 percent of all processed foods in US supermarkets contain GM ingredients. The industry touts higher yields, resistance to pesticides and predators, and more nutritious foods. Some farmers claim lower yields and higher costs. Concerns include pollen "drift" affecting other crops, the threat of producing "superweeds" and toxins that harm helpful insects. Critics charge inadequate testing for long-term impacts and call for adoption of the "precautionary principle," whereby producers must show evidence of safety before marketing.

Human enhancement

Moratoriums currently exist on human cloning and what is called germ-line modification, which would pass modified genes on to progeny. (Europe has banned both.) But a convergence is developing between reproductive techniques and genetics which could blur the line between therapeutics and "enhancement" - opening the door to "designer babies" and eugenics, with profound implications, many say, for human identity, family relations, and social justice.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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