By Nathan Risinger


Summer has long been the season of blockbusters.  If you want Oscars, open your film at Christmas; if you want box office receipts, open in July. Or, so the saying goes.  Hollywood is currently gearing up to release one of its biggest summer flicks, The Bourne Legacy, the newest installment in the Jason Bourne series of espionage thrillers.  This chapter in the series features a new agent, Aaron Cross, whose chromosomes have been genetically altered by the US government to turn him into super-human spy capable of abnormal physical and mental feats.


Gene therapy has been the focus of ethical debate, at least since the first human genome was fully sequenced in 2000.  As technology and science progress we are seeing more and more examples of tactile scenario in which the ethical challenges of such treatments are presented.


Hollywood isn’t the only place that has been giving genetics some attention.  Europe is on the cusp of approving a form of gene therapy for the first time.  The European Medicines Agency has recommended a therapy that would, according to the BBC, “(use) a virus to infect muscle cells with a working copy of the gene”.  To date the procedure has only been recommended for lipoprotein lipase deficiency, (a genetic disorder that prevents the body from breaking down certain fats). However, final approval by the European Commission could potentially also be seen as signaling the beginning of a new era in clinical treatment.


The review of this treatment arrives at the same time as additional groundbreaking genetics research. In an article published several days ago in Nature, scientists from Harvard and Cal Tech announced that they had successfully created a “jellyfish” out of cells from the heart of a rat.  Dr. Kevin Parker a biophysicist at Harvard who worked on the project explained, “Functionally we’ve built a jellyfish.  Genetically this thing is a rat.”


For all of human history we have been at the mercy of our hereditary information.  There was little to be done about many genetic traits (both positive and negative) inherited from our parents.  If our ancestors were prone to heart disease, alcoholism, or any of a variety of disorders, than, we too might be saddled with the family baggage.  Now a whole new frontier of individualized health care is on the cusp of being realized, and there are moral questions that need serious consideration.


Perhaps the most important question to answer is this: do we have any business tampering with nature in this way? As a species we have certainly been tampering with nature for a great part of our existence.  This new development, however, raises interesting questions: namely, are there limits to human agency, and are there certain things that we should not try to control?


In addition to more metaphysically-rooted risks, there are also more mundane (but no less deadly) risks associated with the research. Gene therapy in the United States continues to live under the dark cloud of the Jesse Gelsinger case that occurred at the University of Pennsylvania over a decade ago.  Gelsinger, who died after an infusion of genes into his body during a clinical trial, has become a poster child for the risks, and the appropriate conduct of this type of research.


For those who fear scientific progress (as of 2009 only 4 in 10 Americans were convinced by Mr. Darwin), and for whom talk of genetically modified super-humans makes them head for the nearest fall-out shelter, it may be too late.  Forms of genetic engineering have been in use for decades.  In fact, in 2006 alone the United States planted over 100 million acres of genetically modified produce, roughly 53% of the world’s genetically modified food crop.  This is to say nothing of concept of selective breeding that has been implemented in a multitude of species from plants to dogs to humans for millennia.


While there are certainly downsides to genetically modified foods (antibiotic resistance, gene transfer, exacerbation of global resource inequities, etc.) there are also huge upsides.  In 1963 Dr. Norman Borlaug introduced genetically modified high-yield wheat to the Indian subcontinent and ushered in what is now known as the Green Revolution. Dr. Borlaug, who passed away in 2009, received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives to date.


That said, fruits and vegetables do not engender the same ethical concerns as humans.  Suddenly, we have the ability to disturb and confound the natural order in a new and previously unfathomable way.  Harvey Fineberg, former Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, has described this process as “neo-evolution”.  The idea basically is that we are now the controller’s of our own evolution.


Logically, assuming reasonable risks, it would make sense to allow a person with a hereditary heart problem to modify his or her genes.  But what about a person who is perfectly healthy but wants to run faster, or perform better on an exam?  What about parents who want to genetically predetermine their child’s height and eye color?


We also need to remember that genes are only one part of the puzzle and most work here will involve teasing apart the exceedingly complex interplay between genes and environmental conditions.  Even with the best genetic code in the world, eating cheeseburgers and smoking two packs a day will still put unhealthy stress on the body.


The big questions are not quickly or easily answered, they require careful consideration and deliberate, logical thought, and, input from a broad-range of experts. Given recent advances, the time for an ever-more vigorous debate is well upon us.


Importantly, the ethical challenges of applied genetics have been considered by the scientific community and by federal regulators.  The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has, for over 20 years, committed 5% of its budget towards research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of genetic research. A substantial investment for significant challenges.


Nathan Risinger, B.A., is a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  He is interested in the concept of free will, especially in relation to the possibility of objective moral truths.

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Nathan Risinger

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