Biomedical Technologies - is the FUTURE ?

The widely publicized Human Genome Project has been a massive undertaking requiring enormous computing power. Its goal has been to produce an accurate map of the chemical structures that make a person a person—the blueprint of human life, involving several billion pieces of information.

Along the way, the project has also become a test case for weighing the benefits of private versus public science represented on each side by highly visible scientists with charismatic personalities, with the largely government-funded public project at the U.S. National Institutes of Health led by Francis Collins competing head-to-head with a for-profit commercial operation led by 1. Craig Venter of Celera Genomics to crack the code first.
Each group has claimed victor)' on several occasions as new milestones have been reached; most observers seem to accept the proposition that the project would not have advanced as quickly as it did were it not for the intensity of the competition.

The rivalry may have peaked during a joint presentation at the 2001 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at which Venter's Celera group , publishing in a issue of Nature that was literally hot off the presses when it arrived at the meeting, simultaneously revealed similar "draft" human genome maps. (Actually, neither map was entirely complete, and the work of both groups continues.) While the rivalry may indeed have spurred both groups to work harder and faster, it also spurred a heated debate about the conflict between the preservation of commercial patent rights, based on keeping details proprietary, and the advancement of public science, based on a policy of open information sharing.

Knowing most of the genetic code, or even all of it, does not, however, mean understanding it and does not translate directly into effective therapies for genetics-related problems. Genes with specific known effects must still be identified, defined, and distinguished from the amorphous chunks of code. Many traits are believed to be the result of the interaction of multiple genes and often reflective of environmental influences as well. Even identical twins do not always have the same personalities, problems, or diseases. Nevertheless, the project is an important and highly visible step in the direction of linking genetic heritage with a variety of conditions. This step has also raised people's awareness of the profound social and ethical issues associated with the complete mastery of human genetics that the project appears to promise in the not-so-distant future. The issues include the following:
• Genetic testing and privacy: What will employers and insurance companies do with the information about individuals' susceptibility to particular diseases?
• The question of "designer babies": Is it right for parents to choose their children's gender, height, weight, coloration, athletic ability, or intelligence?
• I he essential nature of human individuality and identity: Should the code ever be duplicated to produce a new human, and if it is, will this clone be the same person, or a new one?
• The relations between genetics and ethnic identity, genetics and personality, and genetics and human behavior: How much of our decision making is based in biology and how much is actually a matter of choice ?

Against this backdrop, public controversies have raged about the heritability of homosexuality (the "gay gene" idea), of obesity (the so-called "fat gene"), and of individual predispositions to mentally disturbed, aggressive, or criminal behavior. The idea that SO much of human behavior might be "in the genes" represents an assault on the Western legal system (and some Western theology) by undermining the presumption that humans make behavioral choices that are free and that may be rationally determined.

Some worry that the kind of genetic determinism that this line of research seems to reinforce will blind us to the social and environmental determinants of behavior, such as learned social values, economic influences, and family dynamics. At the same time the eventual promise of the project may be to enable us to transcend the tyranny of biology, making possible the achievement of human control over human evolution and destiny to an unprecedented degree. But the minute we have the capability to correct defective genes, we will be faced with the dilemma of having to choose which human characteristics actually fall in the "defect" category. As the old saying goes, we must be careful what we ask for—we might get it.

Despite the ethical challenges that a complete knowledge of human genetics may eventually engender, there are some cases where social consensus on the right course of action is more likely than in other cases. If diseases such as cystic fibrosis or diabetes can be treated with gene therapy, if dysfunctional organs can be replaced with substitutes from modified animals, or if nerve cells or other critical human tissues can be made to regenerate themselves, the benefits would appear overwhelming.

In fact, most people in both North America and Europe (the areas where opinion data are generally available) are much more supportive of medical biotechnology than of agricultural biotechnology, most likely because the benefits to the quality of human life are so readily apparent for medical interventions. Yet in each of these examples - gene therapy , xenotransplantation , and the use of stem cells substantial controversy has arisen.


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