Experts issue gene research warning

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SEPTEMBER 19, 2000

In a new report, scientific experts are issuing a warning against experimenting with human DNA, targeting a specific type of gene modification they say is unsafe and unproven.

Inheritable genetic modification "cannot presently be carried out safely and responsibly on humans," said the group, whose findings were published in a report prepared by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Gene modification has been in the news lately, particularly with recent advances in the Human Genome Project. But most of the research and experimentation has been on changing the genetic makeup of just one particular human.

Known as somatic gene modification, this type of therapy alters a person's non-reproductive body cells. Research in this area often focuses on treating or correcting disease in one human.

On the other hand, inheritable genetic modification (IGM) is designed to alter one's reproductive cells. Changes would therefore be seen in his or her descendants.

IGM could be applied in several ways. Parents could potentially create "designer babies" by modifying sperm and egg cells to receive desired characteristics such as height or hair and eye color.

Or, a person's genes could be modified to ensure that his or her children don't get an inheritable disease.

Whatever the application, the experts are voicing concerns. Not only are techniques used in somatic gene modification inappropriate for IGM, the group says more attention needs to be paid on potential side effects of somatic research.

The experts also say modifying reproductive cells could worsen discrimination against people with disabilities, widen the gap between the "haves" and "have nots," and change the way humans interact with one another or parents interact with children.

With recent successes in cloning animals, such as mice, sheep, and cows, many have wondered if the cloning of humans is near. However, the report points out that successes only come after several hundred attempts, underscoring a fundamental ethical issue regarding new scientific techniques.

New medical research often involves unknowns, imperfections, and inefficiencies. Scientists who conduct gene modification on animals, however, don't have room for "mistakes" once they begin experimenting with humans.

"The imperfect efficiency of gene transfer that is tolerable in animal studies would be not acceptable for humans," states the report. "Nor would it be acceptable in humans as it is in animal studies to eliminate damaged offspring in unsuccessful experiments..."

The experts are recommending more public education and discussion about IGM. Society, as a whole, must decide if and how experimentation on humans will ever begin.

In making their findings, the experts considered various religious and cultural issues. The report only mentions the discussion of Judeo-Christian traditions.

Get the Report:
Findings and Recommendations (AAAS. September 2000)
Full Report: Human Inheritable Genetic Modifications - Assessing Scientific, Ethical, Religious, and Policy Issues (PDF 205K) (AAAS. September 2000)

Related Stories:
Scientists decode human genome (Tech 06/27)

Relevant Links:
The American Association for the Advancement of Science -
Scientific Freedom, Responsibility, and Law -
Genetic Cloning -
Human Cloning Resources -
Clones R Us -