Wired Woman
Wired Woman Technoculture
From the archives - this article originally appeared in January 2000



Grave New World
by Geraldine Sombke

GENE THERAPY.... STEM CELL RESEARCH.... FROG EYES AND EARS GROWN IN LABS.... These are only a few recent headlines from national and local media exploring advances in medicine and gene therapy, and even hair follicle repair. What do we think of when we read these headlines? Are we alarmed, do we wonder about the implications of human genome research, should we?

The first Newsweek of the new century carried an article by Dr. W. French Anderson, a professor of biochemistry and paediatrics at the University of Southern California, describing breakthrough treatments in genetic engineering, including stimulating new blood vessel growth in the heart. The Vancouver Sun heralded discoveries in stem cell research as one of the top scientific advances of 1999. Japanese scientists may agree, as they have grown the cells of frog eyes and ears in a test tube, the latest step towards grow-your-own organs, according to a BBC story.

Stem cells are the body's building blocks. Some come only from embyos, making their use in research controversial. Other stem cells are produced in adults. Researchers at Osiris Therapeutics in Baltimore report in the journal Science that they isolated a single cell, then grew it into a colony of more than a million cells that could be induced to produce bone, cartilage and fat. Researchers will eventually be able to inject specific types of cells into patients, which then would grow into replacement bone, tendon or muscle.

Science Notebook, in their 3-1-2000 online edition, describes a Philadelphia laboratory experiment using gene therapy to permanently colour grey hair. Iceland is licensing a genetic catalogue of its entire population to an American company to be used as a gigantic database. We can already screen for genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

And yet...

The same article in the Vancouver Sun mentions the United States National Institute for Health (NIH) draft guidelines specifying that cells used in experiments it funds must come from excess embryos created by couples for infertility treatment that would otherwise be thrown away. Does this reduce human embryos to the level of recycled cans and newspapers?

Dr. Anderson mentions that human genes have been identified that appear to influence behaviour - an affinity for risk-taking, intelligence and even sexual preference. Scientists have also identified genes which influence body size and muscle mass. "The temptation to try to use genes such as these to 'improve' ourselves is very strong-maybe even irresistible," says the good doctor. The movie Gattaca proposed designer children, pre-selected for intelligence, physical prowess, height, weight, dexterity.

The first step would be to say that treatments are available. Would the next step be that treatments are mandatory? Shall we breed the risk takers out of our society to lower medical costs? Shall we create more geniuses by breeding for intelligence? If we can screen for a genetic disease, should children born with such a disease then be allowed to sue their parents for not having it corrected prior to their birth?

The field of bioethics is hard pressed to keep up with the pace of discovery. Once the entire human genome is mapped, will we feel it mandatory to tinker with it? We already possess more knowledge than ethical guidelines for its use. This issue is too fundamental to our continued humanity to be left to the dictates of the marketplace.

Before we develop more promising ways to reengineer fallible humanity, let us spend some time pondering the profound dangers and the need for stopping points.