1. Rip up life's blueprint
2. 'I'll have a boy - a clever one' [a neo-liberal eugenicist writes...]
3. GM monkeys' glowing placentas [new light on unethical science?]
1. Rip up life's blueprint
The supposed precision claimed for genetic engineering is based on the idea that a gene will produce a identical result whether in the organism of origin or the organism into which the genetic engineer randomly inserts the gene in question. Measure this myth of precision and predictability against what is now unexpectedly emerging about 'position effects':
"We know that a growing number of human diseases are caused not just by gene mutations, but also by moving genes to new locations in the human genome. "We call these 'position effects', which means we really don't understand them," says Bickmore. One example is anirida, a hereditary condition associated with the "PAX6" gene, in which babies are born with no iris in their eyes. In some families there is nothing wrong with the gene itself; it has just been moved to a new position on the chromosome.
Scientists have already discovered that some genes in yeasts and fruit flies can be shut down by shuffling them from the centre of the nucleus to the periphery. The same thing might happen in people, says Bickmore. "This allows us to think about how human genetic diseases can result not just by mutating gene sequences, but also by placing genes in the incorrect environment."
'Rip up life's blueprint: It's time to rethink the way we look at the human genome...'
Wilson da Silva
New Scientist September 15, 2001
2. 'I'll have a boy - a clever one'
APPLIANCE OF SCIENCE
Financial Times (London) September 15, 2001
Thomas Barlow looks to a future in which parents are completely free to pick genes for their babies
A process pioneered at Hammersmith Hospital in London more than 10 years ago enables parents who have used in vitro techniques to screen the resulting embryos for genetic traits before they are implanted. The technique has been used to block the transmission of herit-able diseases from one generation to the next. It has successfully produced offspring free from cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and from a number of other diseases carried on the X (the female sex) chromosome. It has also been used to select the gender of embryos before implantation - in what is sometimes referred to as "family balancing". And there is no reason, at least in principle, why it couldn't be deployed to select other traits. There is no sense in getting inflammatory about this. I do not intend to give in to that ineffable love that all humans have of possibility over probability. I don't want to alarm you with fanciful surmises about where this technology is going. I don't want to strafe my readers' long-suffering imaginations with fetching conjectures about all the beautiful designer babies - born toilet- trained, proficient in Sanskrit, and so on - that we can expect to spurt out from the genetic test tubes of the hereafter. But I will say this. Selection is the first step to design.
Pre- implantation diagnosis, followed by embryo selection, is morally equivalent to all those other forms of genetic engineering that are routinely predicted for our future.
Insofar as contemporary efforts at trait selection involve deciding which genes are "desirable" and which are not, all such methods amount to an attempt to improve the genes of babies. In other words, they represent a tool for genetic cultivation and should be considered as a primitive procedure for performing eugenics in a test tube. And, remembering the eugenic fiascos of the last century - mass sterilisations in the name of genetic purity - it would be wise to ask ourselves: is this acceptable? Some people say straight off, of course, that it is not, simply because it is eugenic. And indeed there is a belief that the quest for "improvement" is already having a detrimental effect on society. In the early days of pre- implantation genetic diagnosis, for example, Abby Lippman, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill university, was quoted as saying: "Do we want to live in a society where nobody is born with Down's syndrome? If so, why? That's an ultimate aim of these tests. Does this make us a better society?" Since then, disability groups have made a similar point: that to choose one type of embryo over another is a eugenic act that might be seen to devalue any living person with the characteristics for which that discarded embryo was rejected.
This is an intriguing proposition. For, if it is wrong to select a child who has two copies of chromosome 21 over another with three copies (the anomaly that leads to Down's syndrome), then presumably something should be done to control the technology that allows this. Yet this might be called the fascism of the perverse tender heart. To enforce no decision when the technology is available is itself a kind of decision. Is it conscionable for the state to restrict an individual's ability to select genetic traits in their children, simply so that our population might remain healthily balanced with disability? I think that question answers itself. But what it hints at further is that there is a fundamental difference between the eugenics of the previous century and those with which we have begun to contend in the new. Today we naturally associate any eugenic enterprise with the horrors of Nazi Germany, but does this mean we should also condemn genetic selection and genetic engineering by association? Is this a fair comparison? If there was one lesson to be learned from the 20th century eugenics movement, it was not that it was necessarily wrong to aspire to select or improve an individual's genes. Rather, it was that it is morally repugnant to enforce a reproductive choice on anyone against their will in order to achieve socially directed ends. And, by these terms, one could argue that it is those who would restrict parental ability to select traits for their offspring who have most in common with 20th century eugenicists. Accordingly, perhaps, as our societies take their first primitive steps toward engineered babies, the most pressing concern will not, after all, be whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea of making improvements, but rather to find ways of ensuring that parental choice in such matters is genuinely kept free.
This is not a trivial matter. Obviously, parents need information in order to make decisions; and while the medical profession can try to present facts without exerting influence - through non-directive counselling, for example - it may not be possible to ensure that information about the desirability of different genes can ever be delivered with complete neutrality. It is worth noting here that even today many women who carry to term a child with a disability report pressure from their doctors to abort it, and others may presumably have been persuaded to do so. It is also interesting to observe that some of those horrifying 20th century eugenic programmes were - officially anyway - not involuntary. In Sweden, it was illegal to sterilise people against their will, and yet between 1935 and 1975, more than 60,000 Swedes were persuaded that it was in their own and their society's interests to accept sterilisation. And yet if principle, history, and numbers like these all point to a recommendation that the new eugenics be let adrift in parental hands, there is one horrifying caveat. Humans do seem to be strangely susceptible to the lemming effect. No one is forced to eat at McDonald's, to drink Coca-Cola, or to watch Survivor, but all three are done by vast numbers.
That, you might say, is the burlesque tragedy of liberal, democratic capitalism: nobody is forced to make the choices they make, but they make them of their own volition. A future in which parents are completely free to pick and choose genes for their babies will no doubt be one blighted in some measure by fads and trends, and uncontrollable, homogenising social forces. In theory, one can try to limit the impact of human nature in this regard by distinguishing between those genetic selections that might count as "therapies" and those that might count as "enhancements".
But that's an awfully tricky business. Is it fine, for example, to select against genes that are predictive of mental handicap, but wrong to select for genes that might promote the development of higher-than-average intelligence? And how, for example, should one draw the distinction between parents who want to increase genetically melanin (skin pigment) production in their child because he or she is going to grow up in the tropics, and parents who want to decrease melanin production in their child because he or she is going to grow up in the US? And who, once again, is to decide? In the end then, there may be nothing for it but to adopt a stance of humane resignation, and to take what comfort you can in the maxim: better an attempt to improve the individual at the expense of society than an attempt to improve society at the expense of the individual.
3. GM MONKEY RESEARCH EARNS GLOWING REPORT
John von Radowitz, Science Correspondent, PA News
Press Association September 17, 2001
Monkeys with placentas that glow green under ultraviolet light have been created by gene scientists, it was disclosed today. The research marks a significant new step towards the use of genetically modified primates in the development of human treatments.
GM monkeys are expected to provide new insights into pregnancy problems such as infertility, recurrent miscarriage, and low birth weight. In January US scientists at the Oregon Regional Primate Center reported the the birth of the world's first genetically modified primate.
But although the rhesus monkey carried inserted foreign DNA, the new gene did not produce the protein it was meant to. The new work by a team led by Dr Thaddeus Golos, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, USA, is important because in this case a properly functioning gene was transferred. The scientists inserted a gene from a fluorescent jellyfish into two fertilised rhesus monkey embryos. In mammals, the placenta develops in the womb from the embryo during pregnancy to provide nourishment to the developing foetus and transfer waste to the mother's blood circulation. The embryos were implanted into two surrogate monkey mothers, both of which became pregnant, one with twins. One twin and a single infant were eventually born.
In every case the foetus had a placenta made with cells containing the jellyfish protein, which glowed green when placed under ultraviolet light. The jellyfish gene is known as a "reporter" gene because of the way the protein it produces reveals its presence. It is a useful way of showing where a gene transfer has worked and where it has not. Dr Golos said the jellyfish gene did not appear in the infants after birth, but emerged in their placentas. "The infants produced here did not carry the gene in their DNA, but they did carry it and produce large amounts of the transgenic protein within their placentas during pregnancy," he said. Each of the surrogate mothers' immune systems began to react against the jellyfish protein at about mid-pregnancy. The scientists said GM primates could be used as an experimental model to explore how the maternal immune system accepts the foetus, whose genes are partly inherited from the father. "Scientists can now devise experiments to learn the role of individual genes in human female reproductive health, and maternal and foetal well-bring," said Dr Golos. The research was reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week. A harmless version of the HIV virus was used to fery the gene into the cells of the early-stage embryos before implantation, said the scientists. The virus was stripped of disease-causing genes and contained just a small percentage of the HIV genetic blueprint.