Forget 2001: a space
odyssey, Buck Rogers and any other visions of the 21st century that
centre around adventures in space, they got it wrong. Sure were
sending up the odd satellite into the far reaches of the solar system,
but us humans still havent got any further than the moon. And
as for super intelligent robots with the capability of rebelling against
their human creators, were not quite there yet either but
apparently Dyson have nearly perfected the first autonomous vacuum cleaner,
its just having a little difficulty with corners and doorways. Space
and robots are for geeks; the 21st century will really belong to biology.
When Watson and
Crick deduced the double helical structure of DNA in the early 1950s
they revealed how genetic information is transmitted through successive
generations. Back then, did they realise the future implications of
such an important discovery? Scientists now had an understanding of
the basic instructions for the building and maintenance of life.
Today we can clone
animals and were on the verge of cloning humans too. We can chop
genes from one species and stick them into another totally different
one, and remarkably, end up with a living product not some sludge at
the bottom of a test tube. Soon well know all of the three billion
bases that make up the human genetic code. So what exactly are we going
to do with all that information
The human genome
is all of the DNA that makes up a person. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid)
is the molecule that makes up our genes. It is made up of four similar
chemicals, known as bases which are abbreviated as A, T, G and C. The
order of these bases is vital. It dictates whether an embryo will develop
into a human, a fly or any other organism, all of which have their own
specific genome. Genes carry information for making all the proteins
required by all living organisms. These proteins determine everything
about us, how we look, how well our bodies fight infection or metabolise
food, and to some extent how we behave. By mapping the human genome
scientists have obtained an instruction manual on how to make a person.
The Human Genome
Project was launched in October 1990. Its main aim was to sequence the
entire human genome. Other targets included identifying the genes that
are encoded with this information, developing techniques for analysing
this data, and addressing the ethical, legal and social issues that
may ensue. Two American agencies, the Department of Energy and the National
Institutes of Health jointly produced the original plan that was to
be publicly funded. Six years later, however, and a private company,
Celera, joined in the effort and the project turned into a race. There
was a fear in the scientific community that Celera would patent the
information it uncovered, so the public consortium increased its efforts
to prevent the genome becoming privatised. In the end both parties announced
at the White House on 26th June 2000 that they had each completed a
working draft of the genome. By the end of February 2001 this draft
had been finalised and both teams published the genome in scientific
journals showing the 30,000 or so genes that it contained.
The Future of
Information gained from the Human Genome Project will primarily be applied
to medicine. We already know quite a lot about genes and disease. It
is currently possible to screen for numerous monogenic diseases such
as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anaemia. But most disorders
arent caused by just one gene but several, so well need
to take a different approach to tackle these. Traditional pharmaceutical
sciences such as biochemistry will be combined with our new understanding
of genes and proteins to develop a new branch of medicine, called Pharmacogenomics.
is the study of how an individuals genetic profile affects the
bodys response to drugs. By 2020 this science will be used to
tailor-make drugs for individuals depending on their specific genotype.
It will do nothing less than revolutionise medicine. Drugs will be made
that can pinpoint proteins and DNA associated with a particular disease,
maximising the therapeutic effect of the drug. By directing treatment
to specific areas, damage to nearby healthy cells will be minimised.
This will be very advantageous for cancer therapy in particular, at
the moment treatments like chemotherapy cause serious side effects because
it damages both healthy and cancerous tissue. Tumours will be genetically
fingerprinted so that drugs can be aimed directly at them, so
avoiding the usual complications.
By 2020, when we
visit the doctors our individual genetic profile will be amongst our
medical records. Currently doctors have to prescribe drugs on a trial-and-error
basis. Some drugs just dont work on some people, or worse, can
cause allergic reactions. Doctors will soon be able to immediately rule
out certain drugs and prescribe what will be most effective for you.
This will increase the patients well being immensely by reducing
the time taken to find effective treatment.
The current method
of determining drug dosage is based on a persons age and weight.
This can be highly inaccurate as a guide. People metabolise at rates
often unconnected with either of these factors. So again, knowing your
genetic profile will save money and time and improve patient care.
Scientists are already
aware that certain people may be pre-disposed to contracting certain
illnesses. Knowledge of a persons genetic profile will allow early
screening for disease causing genes. Genes dont always express
information; often they lie dormant waiting for triggers to set them
off. For example, if someone is identified as a carrier of a gene that
can trigger heart disease, they can be advised to eat lower fat foods
and exercise more frequently. By 2020 the list of known disease-causing
genes will be much longer than it is now, therefore increasing the number
of preventable inherited disorders and removing the need for their treatment
Vaccines are one
of most effective ways of fighting disease, like screening they prevent
the onset of illness, which is far preferable to treatment. But existing
vaccines are not without flaws. Often live viruses are used in a vaccine
to create the required antibiotic response needed to obtain immunity.
This can sometimes be risky. Viruses can also be hard to store, making
them too difficult to manage and too expensive to use in poorer countries,
places where vaccines are more important than anywhere else. By 2020
we will be able to vaccinate with pure DNA or RNA. There will be no
need to inject whole pathogens but just enough information to trigger
an antibiotic response, but with none of the risks of causing infection.
These new vaccines will be easier to store than live viral cells and
can be made very economical by engineering the vaccine to infer resistance
to more than one strain of pathogen at once.
In Britain the NHS
is being stretched to its limits because there is a demographic shift
towards an older population. Older people generally require more hospital
care than the young but at the same time there are less young people
working and paying tax to fund this care. New drugs and therapies are
very expensive and it is becoming impossible to meet the needs of everyone.
This increase in the average age of the population in most developed
nations is set to continue, so we need a solution. Pharmacogenomics
may just be our great New Hope. Its benefits include: less adverse reactions
to drugs, less failed drug trials, quicker drug approval time, less
time on medication, less wastage through over-estimated dosage, fewer
side effects caused by treatment, earlier detection and prevention.
the human genome will come in useful in many more ways too. Another
exciting development will be in the area of gene therapy. With this
we will be able to treat, cure or even totally prevent disease by changing
the expression of a persons genes. This field of medicine is currently
in its infancy. Knowledge of the human genome should, however, rapidly
accelerate its development. By 2020 I believe that germ-line gene therapy
will be approved. If gene therapy targets germ-line cells then changes
to the recipients DNA will be passed on through to future generations.
Germ-line gene therapy is currently outlawed due to the potential hazards
associated with such experimentation. Any mistakes that occur during
gene therapy of germ-line cells would not only harm the patient but
their future offspring. But by 2020 this argument may no longer be valid,
scientists will have such complete knowledge of the genome that gene
therapy will be a viable and safe solution. In this way we could ensure
that deleterious genes are eventually weaned out of the human gene pool
forever. Gene therapy works by inserting correcting genetic information
into disease causing genes. To do this the natural biology of a virus
is utilised. A virus reproduces by inserting its own DNA into a host
cell which then incorporates into the DNA of the host, forcing it to
replicate more of the virus. Gene therapy would require the removal
of the part of viral DNA associated with disease, and the insertion
of the treatment DNA. The modified virus could then be used to target
cells that require the addition of healthy DNA.
of genetic information
So far we have discussed only the benefits that knowledge of the human
genome will bring us. Unfortunately progress is unlikely to be a totally
smooth process. There is a downside to this wonderful new science and
by the year 2020 we will be familiar with some of the negative aspects
too. A genetic profile of a human can be a very useful thing as we have
seen, but like other information in our medical records it is also private
and confidential. Who will be allowed access to our test results? Will
it stop at the medical profession or will other groups think they have
a right to know even more about us than they do already?
Employers will be
very tempted to make use of this information if they can. In some cases
this may even be justified. It may be in an employees best interest
if an employer can identify whether he or she would have an allergic
reaction, for example, caused by a substance that they would regularly
come into contact with during their working day. But will employers
start to bully potential recruits into having genetic tests done, or
demand to see the results of any previous ones? In 2020 our understanding
of which genes code for which trait will throw up a few surprises. It
is likely that we will start to see behavioural types linked to various
genes. Traits like intelligence, memory, aggression, mental disorder,
kindness and sexual orientation may turn out to be linked to a gene
or a group of genes. Should employers have access to such information?
It some cases probably yes, if aggression and violence turn out to be
genetically inherited then surely these people should be stopped from
working with children, or in any profession where they would come into
contact with vulnerable groups. Just as someone with a violent criminal
record can be disqualified from various jobs.
However, the chances
are that more than just genes influence behaviour. Genetically identical
twins for example, although they may look alike, often have totally
different personalities. But some behavioural problems definitely are
inherited; for instance there is clear familial linkage of certain mental
illnesses. The social consequences in this area are vast. We will be
torn between maintaining human rights and wanting to use information
in a just and sensible way. What behavioural problems will we define
as disorders and which will be personality quirks? Will we demand individuals
are treated to be cured from disorders like
criminality and aggression? There are no straightforward answers to
these questions and they will require new laws and legislation.
disease testing has been approved by the Genetics and Insurance Committee
(GAIC) for use by insurers. But as more and more tests become available
will life insurance companies demand more access to results? Tests for
Alzheimers, ovarian and breast cancer are already being considered.
The GAIC has approved the use of five other genetic tests: myotonic
dystrophy, familial adenomatous polyposis, multiple endocrine neoplasia
and hereditary motor sensory neuropathy, but the Association of British
Insurers has recently withdrawn its approval for their use.
Should insurers pick and choose policyholders? Does this contravene
the whole ethos of protection by pooling risk so that everyone can afford
cover? Then again, car insurers can pick and choose; some offer cheaper
premiums by only insuring groups considered to be at lower risk. Why
shouldnt people with a genetic clean bill of health be allowed
to benefit from their good fortune?
Homo sapiens subspecies superior
Everything we have considered so far, whether good or bad aspects of
the future use of the genome project will have an impact on the issue
of human evolution. By 2020 gene testing, screening and germ-line gene
therapy could be so effective that we may start to alter the course
of our own evolution. It would begin without controversy with the elimination
of harmful genes, those that cause some of the diseases mentioned earlier.
Towards the end of this decade even, we will know the location of many
other traits, but instead of deleting them perhaps couples will want
to encourage them. Genes for intelligence, good looks or athleticism,
if they exist then can be selected for. Only the rich will be able to
use such technology for non-essential aesthetic screening. Rich couples
could buy sperms or eggs containing perfect traits and little or no
flaws, and designer babies would become a reality.
On the other side
of the scale are those born with inferior genetic profiles.
What will life in 2020 be like for these people (probably most of us)?
Employers may not want us and insurers wont either. If genomic
information became widely available we might have to live with the stigma
of inferiority. We may even see the creation of two separate human subspecies.
At the top end would be a genetic elite which perhaps wouldnt
want to mate with normal mortals and risk having ugly or unhealthy children.
Natural human beings would start to become less successful
in life, being less able to compete with superior humans.
The evolution of a new species would require reproductive isolation,
which up until now hasnt happened to humans due to our ability
to travel all over the planet. But refusal to interbreed by a genetic
elite would mimic geographical isolation. While X-men fantasies are
not likely, subtler changes like the creation of a new class system
and a new subspecies are not quite so far-fetched. Still, I think this
is an unlikely scenario. Human desire will tear apart any attempt at
artificial separation. History shows us that even in highly regimented
societies classes mingle, however forbidden it may be. Animal instincts
like lust should help keep the gene pool stirred up.
All of the consequences considered so far would arise from legitimate
if over zealous usage of information gathered from the human genome.
But there is the possibility of criminal abuse. The idea of mad renegade
scientists working in secret laboratories with plans for global domination
is confined to science fiction stories. But there are examples of science
being conducted in secrecy. In a recent issue of WIRED there is an account
of an anonymous scientist and client who want to attempt human cloning
and are not prepared to wait for US laws to lift the ban on such experimentation.
The client wishes to clone his son who had died from a disease. He has
managed to keep samples of his sons body tissue alive in storage.
The technology exists to take cells from this tissue and inject them
into eggs with their nuclei removed. The eggs can then be grown in a
surrogate mother and a clone should be born. Some countries have no
laws against human cloning so the American client and scientist can
legally perform the procedure elsewhere. So if human cloning goes on
in a secret scientific underground, will genome research open up more
possibilities for radical experimentation outside legal control?
In the same way
that genes can be directly targeted to treat disorders, there is no
reason why they cannot be targeted to do damage. The Geneva Convention
bans biological and chemical warfare, but it still goes on. Iraq has
used sulphur mustard (a blistering agent) and a nerve agent in the war
with Iran. It publicly threatened the use of chemical weapons in the
Gulf War. Many of the coalition forces involved actually expected to
encounter biological or chemical weapons and were trained to deal with
them. A sick kind of gene therapy could be an ideal biological weapon.
It could be used to target very specific groups or even races of people.
Although there is only 0.1% variation in the human genome, there are
nevertheless tiny differences unique to separate races. Culture itself
shapes our genes. For example, in societies where milk drinking is an
ancient practice, people have genes that allow them to digest the milk
sugar lactose. People whose ancestors were not milk drinkers tend to
lack such mutations. Genomic information could be scrutinised to pick
out certain genes unique to certain races and then a way of targeting
them could be developed. Sadly, there are people who have probably already
given this idea some consideration. Lets hope that this is a theory
that is never capable of working in practice.
It is hard to know
how many of these predictions are likely or not. The human genome project
has opened up totally new options. We have the chance to do so much
benefit for the human race, but at the same time expose new areas of
risk. It seems almost certain that this technology will move too fast
for our conservative society. Hopefully the significant advances in
medicine will outweigh all the potential harm, and many of our fears
will prove unfounded.
Could 2020 be an age of enlightenment? In todays climate where
differences in race and religion continue to cause bitter wars and prejudice,
this seems a lot to ask. What the genome project has shown us is that
more than 99.9% of everyones DNA is identical. This means that
it is highly possible that two people from entirely different ethnic
groups could be genetically closer related than two people from the
same race. School children will be taught about the human genome, it
will become as crucial to scientific education as the periodic table
of elements. As future generations learn of the similarity of the global
population, it will be hard for old-fashioned racist views to persist.
Historically speaking, we are all Africans; every other genetic variation
that has occurred over the world are just slight variations of those
found in Africa. Surely by 2020 the whole concept of differences due
to race will seem ludicrous.
In the future, as a result of education, fascist groups over the world
will hopefully see their membership start to dwindle. Even moderate
parties may have to behave differently. William Hagues foreign
land speech in March 2001 warned of the dangers of Britain becoming
ruled by Europe and invaded by asylum seekers. How would a speech like
that go down in 2020? Will playing the race-card still be
seen as chasing the populist vote? Hopefully in the future it will be
less easy to stir up racist hate in this country and elsewhere, when
people have an understanding of human similarities and the pointlessness
of racial divide. This is perhaps too naïve a point of view, but
it is definitely something worth dreaming about.
© JIm Johnson
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