The concept of genetic engineering can be traced back to at least 8000 BC in the Middle East, Orient and the Americas (Roger Straughan, 1996). However, more recently in history this concept was used by the Nazi’s in an attempt to create a ‘super race’ through their ‘eugenics’ programme. We are now able to alter germline genes in somatic cells to treat disease, as well as being able to screen for inherited diseases in unborn foetuses. Many would argue that this could revive ‘eugenics’ in the wrong hands; and therefore is ethically dubious (eNotes. om, 2008).
Alternatively, stem cell research over the past thirty years has enabled the birth of the first IVF baby. The question has been posed of whether we are creating a ‘Frankenstein’ (Bob Calverley, USC Health Magazine, 2001). Scientists are currently working on a genetic test to detect prostate cancer, from which about 10,000 men die a year in Britain. Researchers studied a group of 2000 cancer patients, and found that there are seven previously unknown genetic markers linked to the disease (Ian Sample, The Guardian, 2008).
Similarly, now through amniocentesis and Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) we are able to screen for a number of genetically inherited diseases such as Downs Syndrome and Tay – Sachs disease (ucsfhealth. org, June 2007). These are good examples of what research into genetics has achieved in the past thirty years. Parents can now decide whether they would like to bring a child into the world if it will in be disadvantaged by these diseases, or prepare for the birth of child. There are fears over incorporation of ‘social Darwinism’ or a revival of ‘eugenics’, a term infamously coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. Eugenics’ was used in Europe and U. S. A during the early part of 1900’s to justify sterilising thousands of mentally ill patients as it was thought these people could not produce mentally healthy offspring (2000 The Chicago Tribune, cited on commondreams. org). These concepts reflect the current reservations over genetic screening, people are afraid of living in a world where you are judged before you are even born. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (written by Margaret Atwood) depicts a dystopia in which women who are deemed unsuitable for procreation are sent to the ‘colonies’.
Nonetheless, discoveries such as genetic tests for prostate cancer or diabetes are a great relief for many people. It would be a huge advantage to know what you are genetically susceptible to and then be prepared to deal with the disease if you have it. However, the debate then slides to who should know what your genetic predispositions are, as they are only predispositions. Imagine if prospective employers or insurance companies knew that perhaps you had a susceptibility to heart disease.
Are we prepared to give up our privacy, and in a sense freedom in order to further our own quest for predicting the future? The 1997 film, ‘Gattaca’, portrays a time in which we are all judged by our genetic susceptibilities and essentially have our destinies written out for us before we have even begun to live. These fears are furthered by the fact that genes can now be altered in somatic cells, which could allow people to produce specific characteristics in children before they are born. Qualities such as height, eye colour, or intelligence could be manipulated before birth.
If treatments like this were available, they would most probably be expensive which raises again the issue of creating an elite race of people (eNotes. com 2008). In 1997, researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland successfully cloned the first mammal, Dolly the sheep. This was conducted by transferring the nucleus from the udder cell of an adult ewe into the cytoplasm of a fertilised egg (biotecnika. googlepages. com, 2005). This caused great controversy and sparked fears of human cloning. In 2004, Dr. Panayiotis Zavos, claimed that he had a cloned human embryo, which he had implanted into a womb (Dr.
Adam Hedgecoe, channel4. com/science). This caused outrage amongst scientists who claimed it to be a ‘gross misuse of science’ (new. bbc. co. uk, 2004). It did not however, result in a pregnancy; if it had the embryo may have developed with severe abnormalities as this has been the case with mice. Human cloning in this country was strictly forbidden by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology act which was passed in 1990. Yet still, this has instigated debates over whether infertile couples should be given the choice of having a cloned cell used to create a baby.
The problem is, we already use IVF treatment for infertile couples so who exactly is to say that in theory using a cloned cell to fertilise an egg would be any different. Except, it would be different, the child would be a product of the parent from whom the cell came. It could have severe psychological implications for parent and child. Conversely, stem cell research in Britain is growing at an amazing speed; in 2007 Sir Martin Evans won the Nobel Prize for discovering the gene modification in mice using embryonic cells (nobelprize. org, 2007).
Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardian newspaper reports in April 2007, that a British research team has grown part of a human heart from stem cells. We could benefit greatly from this type of research as it could mean the end for donor waiting lists, although this has not been perfected yet. We can in theory develop human organs which will not be rejected by the body, a remarkable progression for people suffering from chronic heart disease, as currently artificial valves are used. There are obviously ethical issues regarding the use of stem cells.
There are two types of stem cells, adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are formed at the very early stages of conception; which requires researchers to create an embryo which must be destroyed after 14 days as they do not have any nerve cells before this. For many critics of stem cell research, this has been their main argument. However, Ian Sample (November 2007) reported in the Guardian, scientists are able to rewind adult cells into their embryonic state, which dispels any problems with cloning cells.
Previously, this has been done by cloning an adult cell and developing an embryo, which is inefficient. Scientists used genetically modified viruses to implant four genes into human skin cells forcing the cells to regress to embryonic state. This will be used to research diseases such as Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. Although, this is yet to be perfected before it can be used as the viral DNA could cause mutations. There are still uncertainties regarding this area of science for many people though. Yes, this is an amazing discovery and we could research, prevent or perhaps cure numerous diseases or disorders.
Yet still, there is something disturbing for most, about creating organs unnaturally. Thinking about the matter objectively, our population is increasing vastly every day, people want to live longer and longer how are we going to manage this? We also cannot ensure that this research does not serve a malignant purpose. Even recently, human- animal embryos have been given the go-ahead (Ian Sample, The Guardian, 2007) as well as the example given previously of Dr. Panayiotis Zavos’ work. There are obviously so many benefits to using stem cells as a way of researching and preventing disease, but we are still some time off.
We do not know how this will be used socially or politically, we do not know about costs or whether treatments will actually be available to people who need it. We do not know if we are creating a monster which we will not be able to control. In summarise, it appears that genetic engineering in humans is a very complicated issue. On the one hand we have the opportunity to research disease like we have never been able to, we have the possibility of ending donor waiting lists, providing childless couples with more options, to screen for predispositions to diseases and embark upon a new and wonderful journey.
On the other hand, we may be creating something which later we may not be able to control or just manipulating nature for our own selfish means. It depends what you believe, it also depends on what you are prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve the benefits mentioned above. We are already seeing the weaknesses some of our great inventions have, take for instances cars. When they were first invented people were amazed. Now they are contributing to the destruction of our planet.
We appear to be so obsessed with progress and thinking that if it is possible to do something then it should be done. Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ definitely strikes resemblance with the world we live in today (Bob Calverley, USC Health Magazine, 2001). However, in the eyes of someone who needs the type of help mentioned in this essay the conclusion here could be very different. Giving people the choice of using stem cells, genetic screening and cloning cells could remove their freedom, but so could not allowing them the choice of using them.