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Watchdogs Sound the Alarm as Gene Engineers Push the Envelope
Published on Friday, January 12, 2001 by Agence France Press
Watchdogs Sound the Alarm as Gene Engineers Push the Envelope
 
Monitoring groups sounded the alarm Friday after genetic engineers in the United States and Australia crossed into unexplored territory, raising anxiety about research ethics and fears of bio-terrorism.

Australian scientists reported Thursday they had accidentally engineered a killer virus closely related to smallpox while trying to devise a treatment to block fertility in mice.

The same day, US scientists announced they had created the world's first genetically-engineered primate: a rhesus monkey with a jellyfish gene.

ANDi -- the name is "inserted DNA" spelt backwards -- was given the gene to provide a harmless fluorescent marker in the skin. The idea is to provide a laboratory indicator when testing monkeys with potential cures for human diseases.

But to some minds, these twin developments took biotechnology a frightening step too far, raising questions about security and the temptation to tinker with human genes themselves.

"This is just the start. Now we're talking about small numbers of animals and gene markers, but what will happen in the future is that scientists will either add or knock out genes in primates to see what happens to them," said the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

"The end result is terrible suffering. It's bad enough using rodents, but for scientists to play God with primate genes is morally abhorrent."

Disquiet is shared by many with scientific and medical knowledge.

Some say the Australian incident showed how a killer virus could be built accidentally -- and the ease with which it could be assembled by a rogue state or terrorist group.

"Our understanding of how genes work in a normal environment is very poor," said Sue Meyer, a veterinary surgeon and doctor in biology who is spokesman for Genewatch, a British pressure group.

"When you insert a gene into another organism, you can't control where the gene goes, its orientation or how many copies it is going to make, and you can disrupt other functions in the organism.

"Most of the risk assessment in genetic research are done in a mechanistic way, as if one and one equals two, and do not allow very much for the unexpected and the unpredictable, which is what happened in the Australian case.

"Genetic modification is not as straightforward as some people would have us believe."

As for genetically-altered monkeys, these commentators said such research would always be troubled by questions of ethics, given public opposition to experimenting on the closest relation to Man.

"Using modified monkeys will continue to raise problems in this regard," said leading French geneticist Axel Kahn, director of research at France's National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM). "The public finds it much easier to accept using (modified) mice."

Even though animal primates share some 95-99 percent of human genes, there remain important genetic distinctions between monkeys and Homo sapiens, which raises questions as to the usefulness of using these animals in some areas of research.

"Some of the work on cognitive diseases, such as schizophrenia, can only be carried out in people," pointed out Patrick Bateson, chairman of a working group on modified animals in the Royal Society, a top British association of scientists.

Meyer said the two incidents exposed the need for "greater public scrutiny about what goes on in laboratories and greater openness" to prevent abuse of genetic knowledge, as well as a wider debate into the fundamental principles of research.

"If we're not careful, we may not learn the lessons from this kind of thing."

Copyright © 2000 AFP

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