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Moving Forward on Genetics

Kris Schnee

Last weekend’s biotechnology conference was an exciting and very worthwhile event. The many celebrity speakers brought up a whole host of prospects for the future of genetic and medical technology, along with their hopes and fears for its application.

One of the most interesting speakers was Jeremy Rifkin, author of fourteen books and critic of technology’s potential abuses. He asked the audience to consider the implications of the term genetic engineering -- In five years, he argued, we may have plants which naturally produce their own pesticides, but will these healthy plants help to breed rapidly pesticide-resistant pests? Very little money is currently spent on “genetic risk assessment,” attempts to measure the possible economic harm specific technologies might cause. We might consider applying this “predictive ecology” before we allow the introduction of new life-forms (which may spread uncontrollably) into the environment.

Elaine Y. Wan ’01 claimed [“The Ethics of Cloning,” March 16] that after Rifkin spoke, “there was only a handful of people in Kresge who were still skeptical about the apocalyptic implications of genetic technology.” But not everyone agreed with Rifkin. The next speaker, Biology Professor Robert Weinberg, spent his allotted time denouncing him. Rifkin, Weinberg said, has been predicting imminent disaster for several decades now. Yet technology continues to advance, and humanity somehow manages to adapt.

One of Rifkin’s other points also had a serious flaw. He said that certain harmful genes, like that for sickle-cell anemia, should not be eliminated with genetic engineering, because they have hidden benefits like resistance to malaria. Fine, one might answer, you can give those genes to your children. Even Rifkin agreed that genetic engineering’s slippery slope is “no slope at all... Why as parents would we say no to any single gene change?”

An ongoing theme at the conference was patent law -- Rifkin and others presented convincing arguments for changing U.S. patent regulations to forbid the patenting of genes and living things. How can we let corporations permanently monopolize the world’s “genetic commons?” But there was an even better counterargument suggested by speaker Walter Gilbert: we aren’t letting corporations monopolize at all. Patents only last twenty years. While that may be a geologic era in the biotech industry, it means that during our lifetimes, many important genes found by corporations will become free public knowledge. And even if something is covered by a patent, it can still benefits us all. Would vast private effort have been mobilized to create useful genetic technologies, if not in pursuit of enormous dollar signs? By offering vast financial incentives and legally protecting new “inventions,” we actually encourage the rapid advancement and open sharing of knowledge.

Most of the concepts discussed were fairly conservative -- human cloning, genetically altered children, “ordinary” things like that, but there were a few more interesting ideas. There was “xenotransplantation,” the possibility of creating pigs with organs transplantable into humans. Apparently, finding a way to remove a single type of sugar molecule from the surface of a pig’s heart (which can trigger the human immune system) would make it possible to save the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise die for lack of replacement hearts. Better yet, as Ian Wilmut suggested, we could grow new organs from scratch. There are many exciting things we might do in the next few decades.

But there was tension at the conference as well. Several speakers offered a religious view of biotechnology. One of them, Daniel Harrell, explained that parents have no inherent right to have children if they do not come naturally, and that any children created artificially would be devalued “products” rather than a “fruition of love.” Cloned children, because they are created artificially, would be “theologically different” from normal ones. But, some may have wondered, what about existing children created through in vitro fertilization? Have they less “soul” than other people? Twice, a strange man scuttled through the conference’s audience, passing out loaded “press releases” on biotechnology. (One was titled “Death To Monsanto, Say World Scientists.”)

And left unsettled, perhaps fortunately, was the issue of control. At one point, Rifkin asked his listeners who they trusted to control the new technologies of genetics, and found that almost no one trusted the public. Wan wisely concluded that perhaps none of the conference’s speakers could be fully trusted either. Not even a group of elite scientists and students has the knowledge and moral authority to dictate to us all what our policy towards, for example, cloning should be, it is probably best to keep the debate open and let individuals make their own decisions on which technologies to use.

It is amazing to think that at conferences like these, we can now seriously discuss creating entirely new life-forms, and how to conquer ailments like heart disease, cancer, and perhaps even aging -- and that we now have the ability to seriously harm the entire world with our mistakes. Where will biotechnology lead in the next century? As geneticist Norton Zinder put it on Sunday, we “really don’t know what the hell is going to happen.”