Ultimate Therapy: Commercial Eugenics in the 21st Century

By Rifkin, Jeremy | Harvard International Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Ultimate Therapy: Commercial Eugenics in the 21st Century


Rifkin, Jeremy, Harvard International Review


While the 20th century was shaped largely by spectacular breakthroughs in the fields of physics and chemistry, the 21st century will belong to the biological sciences. Scientists around the world are quickly deciphering the genetic code of life, unlocking the mystery of millions of years of biological evolution on Earth. Global life science companies, in turn, are beginning to exploit the new advances in biology in a myriad of ways, laying the economic framework for the coming Biotech Century.

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Genes are the raw resource of the new economic epoch and are already being used in a variety of international business fields--including agriculture, animal husbandry, energy, bioremediation, building and packing materials, and pharmaceuticals--to fashion a bio-industrial world. Nowhere is the new genetic commerce likely to have a bigger impact, however, than in human medicine. For the first time in history, the scientific tools are becoming available to manipulate the genetic instructions in human cells. Human gene therapy raises the very real possibility that we might be able to engineer the genetic blueprints of our own species and begin to redirect the future course of our biological evolution on Earth. Breakthroughs in genetic technology are bringing us to the edge of a new eugenics era with untold consequences for present and future generations and for civilization itself.

In less than ten years, the global life science companies will hold patents on many of the 30,000 or so genes that make up the human race as well as patents on the cell lines, tissues, and organs of our species, giving them unprecedented power to dictate the terms by which we and future generations live our lives. The concentration of power in the global pharmaceutical industry has already reached staggering proportions. The implications of a new market-driven eugenics are enormous and far reaching. Indeed, commercial eugenics could become the defining social dynamic of the new century.

Friendly Eugenics

The term "eugenics" was conceived by Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, in the 19th century and is generally divided along two lines. Negative eugenics involves the systematic elimination of so-called biologically undesirable traits. Positive eugenics is concerned with the use of genetic manipulation to "improve" the characteristics of an organism or species.

The prospect of creating a new eugenic man and woman is becoming ever more likely as a result of the steady advances in somatic and germ line genetic engineering technology. In somatic therapy, intervention takes place only within somatic cells and the genetic changes do not transfer into the offspring. In germ line therapy, genetic changes are made in the sperm, egg, or embryonic cells, and are passed along to future generations. Somatic gene surgery has been carried out in limited human clinical trials for more than a decade. Germ line experiments have been successfully carried out on mammals for more than 15 years and researchers expect the first human trials to be conducted in the near future.

Despite years of favorable media reports on various somatic gene therapy experiments and the high expectations voiced by the medical establishment and the biotech industry, the results have, thus far, been disappointing. So disappointing, in fact, that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) itself was forced to acknowledge the results and issue a sober warning to scientists conducting the experiments to stop making promises that could not be kept. After surveying all 106 clinical gene therapy trials conducted over a five-year period, involving more than 597 patients, a panel of experts convened by the NIH reported that "clinical efficacy has not been definitively demonstrated at this time in any gene therapy protocol, despite anecdotal claims of successful therapy." Still, many of the staunchest supporters of the new gene therapies remain convinced that the techniques will bear fruit as methodologies and procedures are refined and new knowledge of the workings of genes become more available to researchers and clinicians. …

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