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Dolly Cloner, Geneticists Debate Ethics Issues

By Karen Robinson

Although the average person can recognize his pet, they’ve probably never heard of him. But when Ian Wilmut, cloner of the sheep Dolly, spoke last Saturday at the MIT-Harvard Conference on Genetics, hundreds listened. Wilmut and other prominent geneticists spoke at the two-day event, addressing the future of medicine, genetic engineering, and the gene business.

Speakers at the conference, which took place over the weekend, focused on ethical and economic debates as they addressed medical issues.

Dolly cloner discusses ethics

Wilmut spoke on the benefits and ethical questions raised by genetic technology. He touted cloning as a way to secure human proteins and organs from animals and argued that cloning might mitigate the rising percentage of people who die every year while waiting for organ transplants. By altering the genes in a pig embryo, Wilmut said, it would be possible to create organs compatible with the human body.

“Would that be ethically acceptable?” Wilmut asked the audience. It would, he said, as long as “the animals are given as normal a life as possible.”

Wilmut suggested that genetically-altered sheep could be used to study cystic fibrosis, a degenerative disease. Sheep, however, do not naturally acquire cystic fibrosis. “You would have to make animals sick,” Wilmut said, though he thought the procedure would be acceptable “as long as the animals are given the same care a human patient would receive.”

Though he is the first individual to successfully clone a mammal, Wilmut argued against human cloning, saying one would have to be “sick” to attempt such a thing. He said, however, that the correction of genetic errors in humans proves to be a good option in some cases.

Many students who came to hear Wilmut speak did not attend the rest of the conference, but “fortunately, we did not have to turn anyone away,” said coordinator Kelly V. Brogan ’00.

Speakers address human cloning

Dr. David Mangus, graduate studies director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, attributed people’s aversion to human cloning to what he called “the yuck factor... As soon as there’s a feel-good story about an infertile couple ...a bouncing baby that happens to be a clone, the yuck factor” loses presence, he said. The same was true of in vitro fertilization several years ago, he said. The real issue according to Mangus is “what regulatory systems will exist... if cloning is left to markets, as often reproductive science is in this country.”

Dr. Daniel Harrell, associate minister of Park Street Church, found something “theologically different” between a cloned individual and a conceived person, “because the procedure is so different... children are a natural fruition of love.” Mangus and other speakers disagreed.

Several speakers noted that a physician’s primary purpose is to help people, and Cloning Panel Member George Annas said cloning would not help achieve this end. Annas said cloning could lead to the “commodification of babies,” and asked: “Are there any limits?”

Rifkin wary of genetic science

Jeremy Rifkin, author of 14 books on the implications of genetic technology and critic of biotechnology, cautioned audiences not to be “sophomoric reductionists,” and to consider the impact that technology such as genetic manipulation may have. Rifkin predicted that genes and computers will play a role in the next century similar to that played by fossil fuels and industry in the 20th century. He warned that wars over genetic information could result.

After the warning, Dr. Robert Weinberg, founding member of Whitehead Institute, renounced Rifkin’s conclusions. Weinberg criticized the “leap of logic” Rifkin took in citing Ritalin and attention deficit disorder as examples of people “relying on genetics to solve problems that are sociologically and politically in nature.” Weinberg asked that Rifkin “be a reductionist for a minute.”

Dr. Judy Garber, attending physician in the Breast Evaluation Center, paraphrased Rifkin’s statement that cystic fibrosis genes and genes coding for similar diseases could be beneficial by saying, “sure, if you have one gene you may carry resistance to a disease that we, in our highly advanced and technological society, fortunately no longer must worry about.” Fixing such ailments is firmly within medicine’s realm, she said.

The Gene Business

A third panel of speakers at the conference discussed the business and ethics of collecting genetic samples for use in research and commerce.

The panel included Dr. Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE Genetics in Iceland, which is undertaking a project to collect a genetic database of all Icelanders for studies of genetic links to disease. Also speaking was Dr. Martin Teitel, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Teitel warned that, although 75 percent of Icelanders who voted on the issue were in favor of the database, their information could be misused. Stefansson refuted Teitel’s argument by stating that there would be no search function in the database through which a patient’s records could be viewed. “It would be easier to break into every health institution in Iceland several times” than to break into the database, he said.

Stefansson and other panelists agreed that obtaining funding for genetics projects created a series of difficult questions. While some questioners and panelists expressed distrust in the patent system, Stefansson said that one concern of deCODE Genetics is finding funding. It may be difficult to get a patent on a cure for a less common disease, so funding for such projects is difficult to find, he said.

Presenters appeal to wide audience

Speakers at the event balanced their speeches between technical jargon and layman dialogue when addressing the conference audience. As MIT student Tina Salmon ’02 said, “they kept it in layman’s terms but still technical enough that it was interesting.” Salmon is considering majoring in biology, and said the conference peaked her interest.

Professor Tom Settlemire of Bowdoin College brought nine students to the conference, and he said that they appreciated the wide range of issues addressed, especially the economic and social aspects. “That combination is something we as scientists don’t think about as much,” Settlemire said.

While some students found the prospects “scary”, Stacy Chen ’02 said that she is interested in the ethics of genetic research and cloning.

“[We] were very happy about the turnout; everything far surpassed our expectations,” Brogan said. She found it “reassuring to know that so many students and people in the area are interested in addressing these kind of issues”