Sunday, August 7, 2011

Not Quite Gattaca: Part 3: The Ethics

So, the technology exists to for studying DNA, and this has applications to everything from medicine to agriculture. The next question is – should we? What should we do with the knowledge? Is there potential for mistakes which could be detrimental?

One cannot deny the amazing things science has allowed humanity to achieve. Daily living has changed drastically – cars, mobile phones, computers and on the large scale – the Mars Rover, deep sea exploration, piecing together T-Rex and evolutionary theory, all products of science, and all things which have furthered our knowledge of the world around us.

But science has its dark side. Often it is not the science itself which has negative results, but rather the application of the knowledge. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds' at the detonation of Hiroshima bomb. It was thought to be an indication of his regret of his genius part in the development of the atomic technology, but in fact, was his reflection on the destruction his science had left behind.

Thalidomide is considered one of the worst medical disasters of the 21st century. But that hasn’t stopped science, and the ongoing progress of medical research. What an event like the exposure of the toxicity of thalidomide has done is ensured certain checks and balances are enforced, and led to the public questioning the science. However, what is key with any new method, knowledge or treatment is that those questions arise not due to hysteria, hype or misinformation, and that criticism of a scientific outcome is based on the same rigours and tenants of science itself.

So for genetics, what are the ethical issues? The short answer is that there are many. For example in the case of medical genetics, should we allow people to have tests to determine the likelihood of them developing a particular condition? What would insurance companies do with such knowledge? And what about the addressing the requirement to ensure people are adequately educated about said tests and their results before making drastic decisions about their future? And who owns the genetic code? Should corporations be able to take ownership of genes they find confer benefits to humanity? Or is our genetic code our own?

And it is not just the use of human genetics that is raising big questions. The modification of plants has generated much debate and even hysteria in regards to not only their safety for consumption, but also the possible effects on the environment. Otherwise known as GM crops, the use of genetic modification to make plants more tolerant to drought, more productive or nutritious may seem as ideal and a boon to humanity, but massive questions have been raised about the thoroughness of the science and the long-term effects. It seems the general public has indeed learnt from science’s darkest hours, but at what cost?

Humanity likes to take advantage of the great developments in science, but will rapidly question areas of contention perpetuated by mass media. The classic example is animal testing. What the media never portrays is that most scientists would love to see an end put to animal testing and use of animals in experiments – it’s not ideal as animals are bred purely for testing, is very costly and furthermore requires large a time investment from the scientists to care and maintain their animals. I’ve never heard of intentional cruelty to animals by scientists, when in fact, most scientists care very much for the animals which they have invested much time into, and which often are the underpinning thing to their results.

The media doesn’t explain this side of the story and furthermore don’t tend to highlight the work some scientists are doing to develop alternatives to the use of animals. In some cases, this is already done, through the use of cell cultures such as HeLa – cell lines are much cheaper to store and care for, but still have limitations. However, one should be very aware that scientists fully acknowledge the animal sacrifice that occurs in their research and do their best to use alternatives or to care for the animals that give them their results.

Without animal testing or the use of animals in experiments, our knowledge about the way genes function would be drastically cut, and we’d be setting medical treatments up for failure. Animal testing is the one method scientists have to test a new treatment, and whilst this may have negative results and animals may be sacrificed, the question has to be asked about the long term benefit. Is it better to test on animals or humans? This is an ethical question both in regards to the value of life, and also in how science is perceived. In light of all these ethical issues, science is all about knowledge, and utilising that knowledge to further the journey of humanity, to improve the lives of all animals and plants and understand our place in the universe. However, in some cases, the use of science may be misused or misunderstood, and it is hoped active debate about the ethics behind the science can both educate the public about the limits of science and also prevent mistakes as much as possible. It does have to be remembered that scientists are human too!

In the end, all these questions will all need to be discussed, and the limits established. Already much discussion is taking place, and debate about the use of genetic technology is incredibly vigorous. Opinions from scientists, ethicists, animal rights groups, politicians, philosophers and of course, the public all weigh in as to how handle genetic ownership, education and use. What is important is that the opinions around the ethics of genetic knowledge and technology are built not on media mongering, clever marketing or hysteria. The foundation for decisions about the use of genetics needs to built on the scientific observation, reason and rationality. It is only through this approach can the complete picture be pieced together, and the greatest benefits from genetic science can be provided to humanity.

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