Shaping a Genetic Revolution

Article excerpt

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.

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. …