Risky Genetic Fantasies

Recent public debate on genetics has focused narrowly on whether President Bush should let taxpayer dollars fund research using stem cells from human embryos. This public debate has obscured the fact that private-sector scientists are already immersed in much bolder genetics research. Last month, for example, British Columbia-based Chromos Molecular Systems announced a new technique for using artificial human chromosomes to alter children’s health, appearance, personality and lifespan.

It’s hard to take the work of these so called “techno-eugenicists” seriously because it seems so fantastical, so beyond the limits of what anyone would actually do, or what society would allow. But in fact science is advancing rapidly in two gene technologies that go far beyond merely studying stem cells.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 04, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 4, 2001 Home Edition California Part B Page 18 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Genetic research: James Watson was director of human genome research for the National Institutes of Health; he did not, as stated in an editorial last Sunday, direct the NIH.

In the first technology, called somatic gene transfer, geneticists change adult cells in the body (or soma in Greek). Somatic gene transfer is sanctioned by most leading scientists and ethicists because it holds great promise for curing disease without changing the nature of the genes that parents pass to their offspring.

Another field, called germline genetic engineering, alters germ cells like eggs and sperm in ways that do open the door for an outright reconfiguration of the human species. France, Germany, India and many other nations have already banned germline engineering, and Congress should seriously consider a proposal introduced in Congress last month by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) for a similar ban in the United States.


Americans might be surprised to know that germline engineering is supported not only by fringe think tanks like the Los Angeles-based Extropy Institute (mission statement: “Incubating Positive Futures”) but also by some top scientists. MIT economist Lester Thurow says “biotechnology is inevitably leading to a world in which plants, animals and human beings are going to be partly man-made.” James Watson--the co-discoverer of DNA, the former head of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel laureate--is the most blunt of all. “No one has the guts to say it,” Watson says, but “if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we?”

True, germline engineering could one day help prevent deadly diseases such as Huntington’s chorea, but it can also alter fundamental characteristics such as personality and appearance. As another Nobel laureate, College de France genetics professor Francois Jacob, said, techno-eugenics is troubling when its ""point is no longer to heal someone but to modify him, to mold him. ... on no account is it for scientists to decide questions of this magnitude.”

Science is far ahead of the public debate, and scientists need to educate the public about what they are doing. Otherwise the public debate will be fueled by fear.