Genetic Engineering

This was my 10th grade term paper written for English class with Dr. Eric Zissu.

Carlos Macasaet
Dr. Zissu
English
1 March 1999

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering techniques should not be used to custom tailor children. It is morally wrong because it overrides natural selection. Humans should not have the right to play God. It is also unfair for those who are born naturally. Instead of allowing nature to decide, humans might choose what their descendants will be like. Nature alone should be the judge of one’s skin color and other features. Genetic engineering should only be used for medical purposes. Otherwise, it is unfair to those who do not have access to these procedures, while genetically designed people will have an advantage over those who relied solely on nature. Thus, certain forms of genetic engineering should not be permitted.


Genetic engineering is a broad term referring to the alteration of an organism’s genes in order to remove unwanted characteristics of the organism or to add desirable characteristics (Levine). Genetic engineering has been applied to plants and animals for greater and more efficient food production ever since the agricultural revolution. It is also used on humans in the medical industry. Genetic engineering techniques are used to identify and treat certain diseases as well as aid doctors in creating custom made drugs for specific patients (Gorman 81). While the applications of genetic engineering on humans is currently limited, genetic engineering has the potential to eventually be able to treat virtually every disease.

There are several genetic engineering techniques currently used on humans. One is in vitro fertilization, or IVF. In IVF, a female’s eggs are fertilized outside of the body, after the eggs are extracted, they are placed in a fluid similar to that found inside the woman’s body. Then, a sample of semen is washed and incubated. The semen is then placed into the fluid with the eggs and left alone for approximately 18 hours. The eggs are then removed and placed into a special medium that promotes growth. Forty hours later, if the eggs have been properly fertilized and developed, the embryos are transferred to the mother’s uterus. Usually multiple eggs are inserted to increase the likelihood of pregnancy. If, however, more than four embryos develop, the donor is given the option of cryopreserving[1] the embryos left over. This lessens the risk of multiple gestations (twins, triplets etc.) After a single IVF cycle, the probability of pregnancy is about twenty percent greater.

IVF, has been used on animals by farmers for a long time to yield better products. It was used successfully on humans for the first time in 1978.

Another genetic engineering technique used on humans is called gene therapy. Gene therapy is based on recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), also known as gene splicing. In this technique, the genes of one organism are introduced to another organism. This alters the genetic structure of the organism, thus altering its traits. These changes, however, will not be passed on to future generations because the sperm or eggs of the organism are not affected (Levine).

Gene therapy is currently used to correct genetic diseases. These diseases are caused either by inherited defective genes or by miscoded genes, which are generally created during cell growth and division (Blaese). Gene therapy works by inserting good genes into the cells of people with diseases. These new genes provide new instructions to the cells. These new instructions usually counter the effects of the disease, thus curing the patient. “You either eliminate the defect, ameliorate the defect, slow down the progression of the disease or in some way interfere with the disease.” Said Inder Verma, professor at Salk Institute in La Jolla California.

To insert the gene into the cells of patients, scientists usually use viruses. Because of their infectious nature, viruses easily embed themselves into the host patients cells. To do this, scientists use recombinant DNA techniques. They strip a virus of its genetic coding and insert the genes that will go into the cell. The virus is now a carrier, or vector, for the genes and the genes can now be easily inserted into the cells of the patient (Jaroff 68).

Gene therapy will eventually be available for diseases that are not inherited because it can program cells with completely new functions. “You can easily get the genes in, change the cell’s properties and do other things that ought to enable you to treat disease successfully,” said Dr. W. French Anderson, director of gene therapy at the University of Southern California Medical School.

Gene therapy was used for the fist time on September 14, 1990, to treat a four-year old girl. The girl had inherited adenosine deaminase (ADA) deficiency, a fatal disease that attacked her immune system. The problem was that her cells were not creating the ADA enzyme necessary for the immune functions of the cells. Doctors at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda Maryland removed blood cells from the girl and modified them with a viral vector from normal ADA genes. When the blood was infused back into the girl’s blood stream, the ADA gene programmed the cells to produce the missing enzyme. This helped the girl to develop a resistance to infection, albeit temporarily (Blaese).

Scientists, however, have encountered several problems when using viral vectors. For one, the vectors are usually recognized by the immune system of the body and are treated as foreign invaders. This usually causes inflammation and swelling (Jaroff 68). During a gene therapy trial for the genetic disease cystic fibrosis, the inflammation caused by the viral vector was so bad that the FDA ordered that no further efforts be made (Jaroff 68). Because the vectors are treated as enemies by the body, they may be destroyed completely before they have the chance to transport the genes. “In a very unfortunate turn of events, the patient would become immune against the therapy,” says Dr. James Wilson, director of the Institute for Human Gene Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes, the genes just failed to activate upon insertion into the cells and were thus unable to properly command the cells. Others just stopped working after a while (Jaroff 69).

As a result of the shortcomings of using viral vectors, many gene therapy techniques have not been certified by the FDA. Due to the human body’s reaction to viral vectors, gene therapy procedures failed the FDA’s first testing phase (Phase I), in which the safety of the therapy is tested on a few patients. Most of the procedures which were proven to be safe, were proven to be too ineffective in Phase II. So far, only one gene therapy procedure has made it to Phase III, in which the treatment is tested on a larger number of people. The treatment, however could not be passed due to bad side-effects (Jaroff 69)

Despite all the research, gene therapy still has quite a way to go. “There is still no conclusive evidence that a gene therapy protocol has been successful in the treatment of a human disease,” says Anderson. The main problem facing genetic researchers in the field of gene therapy is transporting the genes. The viral vectors, which have been in use since 1990, are inadequate. Aside from the afore-mentioned immunological side effects, the viruses just do not have the capacity to carry the larger and more complex genes required for most procedures. Scientists are currently hard at work developing new and more effective viruses to transport genes. One virus, the AAV (adeno-associated virus), is a benign virus that does not cause disease like any of the others. “It doesn’t elicit the same kind of inflammatory response that the other vectors do,” says Anderson, “it’s somehow evolved the way to get around that.” In addition to the AAV’s non-inflammatory nature, it is also efficient in delivering the genes. The AAV easily invades nondividing cells, and has allowed the genes to express themselves for over two years (Jaroff 73).

Dr. Jeffrey Isner of the St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Boston has developed a new method of gene therapy to treat patients with heart problems. Instead of using viral vectors, he created what he calls naked DNA. It consists of two parts, a portion of a human gene called VEG-F, and a signal segment (Jaroff 70). The VEG-F stimulates the growth of blood cells and the signal segment manufactures and exports the gene products. The treatment greatly improved the patients’ blood flow. The difference with the naked DNA that Isner used was that, unlike other genes, the VEG-F only needed to enter a few cells to be effective. The gene products exported from the cell soon affect the surrounding untreated cells. For this reason, it does not matter that the VEG-F gene deactivates after a short time (two to three weeks) because the new blood vessels have already been created. For this same and other reasons, however, the naked DNA technique can only be applied to a few diseases.

How this process works is still unclear. Scientists are puzzled as to how exactly the naked DNA can infiltrate the heart’s blood cells without viral assistance. “To be perfectly honest, no one really understands how it gets there,” said Isner.

Currently, parents can use genetic testing techniques to determine their children’s gender before conception. Within a decade, it will probably be possible to screen for other traits as well. Hospitals will eventually use gene therapy and IVF as preventive medicine to ward off diseases that may plague the child after birth. Eventually, parents may be able to use the same technology to insert genes of their choosing into their children, thus selecting what their children’s physical appearance as well as personality will be like. “Parents may be going to fertility clinics and picking from a list of options the way car buyers order air-conditioning and chrome-alloy wheels,” wrote Michael D. Lemonick, author of Designer Babies.

Some may not consider this a big step, especially in a world accustomed to cosmetic surgery and other such enhancements. “It’s the ultimate shopping experience: designing your baby,” said Jeremy Rifkin, a biotechnology critic.

Researchers at the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax Virginia have already been able to cure certain disease by altering genes. It just so happens that the genes that they altered are the same ones that control gender. Most patients treated there were actually looking to balance the genders of their families and the company was willing to help out.

When the prospect of genetically engineering humans emerged, it brought with it many fears. In 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote A Brave New World depicting a future in which the government controlled all births as well as the outcome of all children through genetic engineering techniques. In his distopia, all human eggs were fertilized at a central location in accordance to government standards. When the babies were born, they were assigned various roles in society. Every person had a specific role in society and was a member of a distinct class (Wright 67).

Ever since Huxley’s book was published, people have feared that the government would control eugenics[2] for the sake of social efficiency.[3] The current fear is almost the opposite. The potential of genetic engineering causes people to fear that, parents will soon have carte blanche to choose their children’s traits, causing a social stratification worse than Huxley’s. “The more plausible nightmare is roughly the opposite: that a laissez-faire eugenics will emerge from the free choice of millions of parents,” wrote Robert Wright, author of Who Gets the Good Genes.

Some people also worry that if eugenics were to be allowed, then more classes would be created and the distinctions between the classes would become clearer. Others worry about the possible dangers of trying to play God by molding youth to specifications. Biologist Robert Sinsheimer, chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz said, “There may be perils in disturbing a microbial balance that has been billions of years in the making with strange, new man-made bugs.” Sinsheimer also asks, “Do we really wish to replace the fateful but impartial workings of chance with the purposeful self-interested workings of human will?”

Currently, however, the applications of genetic engineering that people fear are far-fetched. Right now, only gender and a certain few genetic diseases can be identified. When those applications do become feasible, they will eliminate inherited diseases and biological inheritance.

Genetic engineering has already raised many controversial issues with doctors, ethicists, religious groups and politicians. Should parents screen for children who would be predestined to shortness, dullwittedness, attention deficit disorder or homosexuality? Will children born with such traits feel even more separated from society than they already are? Which genes should parents be allowed to manipulate? Which genetic enhancements should be used on babies that would normally be healthy (i.e. HIV resistance or a high IQ)? People probably will not have any problems with eliminating psychological diseases that may haunt a child when he gets older, but should parents be allowed to make their children more attractive so as to prevent them from the possibility of being depressed? According to a poll taken by Time, sixty percent of those who participated would rule out a fatal disease in their children. Thirty-three would ensure a higher intelligence, twelve percent would influence their child’s height or weight and eleven percent would determine their child’s gender. Should parents be allowed to alter the balance of nature? Should parents be allowed to design their own children to the detriment of natural selection? Are the risks of genetic manipulation worth taking?

There are also questions about the future of genetic engineering. Will children who did not have the opportunity to be genetically engineered feel separated from society? Will genetic engineering create new classes, and if so, should it still be allowed? Will only the wealthy have access to genetic engineering procedures? What will happen to the American belief that all men are created equal?

The main question confronting bioethicists is that of where the line should be drawn. The problem is that they disagree on where that line should be drawn. They must decide which genetic treatments should be allowed and which should not. Can we justify raising people’s IQ’s by saying we are preventing learning deficiencies? Bioethicists often refer to the slippery slope, in which the acceptable and unacceptable are very closely linked. Once the first step down the slope is taken, all of the successive steps will inevitably follow. They often refer to the slippery slope to prevent people from taking that first step. Bioethicist Eric Juengst, believes that the unacceptable outcomes are inevitable. “There is no slippery slope to genetic enhancement. There’s no slipping at all. As soon as we approve the big-bypass, or the chemotherapy adjunct for follicle stimulation we’re already at the bottom.”

Parents should not be allowed to use genetic engineering techniques to custom tailor their children because it is immoral. It is not fair for parents to decide for their unborn children, what their traits will be like.

Clinicians agree that once genetic engineering techniques are perfected, they should only be used for medical purposes. Parents should not have the option of choosing their children’s gender. If this is allowed, it could further change the gender balance in areas that favor boys more than girls, such as India and China. It could even create problems in the United States where boys are preferably born first. It would make it even more difficult to eliminate gender stereotypes. “Our view at the moment, is that these techniques should be used for medical indications, not family balancing,” commented Dr. Zev Rosenwaks director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell Medical Center.

Despite regulation, some people will always be able to use genetic engineering techniques to perfect their children. In the United States (where there is no national health service), there will always be people willing to pay companies to get the children they want. If a certain nation bans certain genetic engineering techniques that would allow parents to choose the traits of their child, the parents will still be able to travel to other nations where there is no ban to have their child engineered. Already, British parents have traveled to Saudi Arabia to use IVF to choose their baby’s gender (Wright 67).

Even with regulation, genetic tailoring will seep into practice. Most genetic tailoring will start out as medical procedures that could also be used to enhance people. Thus the procedure would be passed by the medical boards even though it would be used by many for cosmetic purposes. Juengst commented, “you won’t see a protocol come to the RAC[4] or the FDA labeled genetic enhancement protocol, it will of course be aimed first at a pathological problem.” Private fertility clinics such as the Genetics and IVF Institute are the most advanced in the country. Because they are privately owned, they are not subject to many federal regulations. They will most likely lead the future of genetic engineering and will control which procedures are available. Genetic enhancement will probably slip into practice without official sanction. Already, researchers have been approached by various people asking if it were possible to apply their research in unorthodox ways. For example, cosmetics companies have asked researchers of albinism if it were possible to create products to alter skin and hair color.

If people are allowed to use genetic engineering techniques to design their babies, social stratification could emerge more fully. Class distinctions will become clearer. Genetically tailoring children would be unfair for those who are not tailored. People who were not genetically tailored will feel left out. Society could be split into two groups, the gen-rich and the gen-poor.[5] Despite any regulation, genetic engineering techniques will only be available to the upper class parents who can afford it. This is very unfair to those who can not afford it. Eventually, biological differences between those who have been engineered and those who have not will be very clear. “We will see a biological stratification vivid enough to mock American values,” wrote Robert Wright, author of Who Gets the Good Genes? Tolerance for children who are different because they were not engineered will drop and parents will be pressured to engineer their babies to conform to what is considered to be desirable in children. If parents do conform, then the genetically engineered children will all be similar and there will be no diversity. “Are we wise enough, some speakers wondered, to interfere with humanity in all its glorious variety?” asked Wright.

Specific genetic enhancements should only be allowed if it is deemed that the treatment would have the same value if applied to everyone. Cynthia Cohen of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, wonders if genetically engineering our children will take away their humanity. “We need to decide whether there is something about humans that is so valuable that we shouldn’t change it, even if it could be done.”

Despite fears of the government controlling the outcome of future generations as depicted in Brave New World, the only way to avoid the social stratification that would occur if parents had full control over their children would be through government intervention. The most realistic way to avoid biological stratification would be for the government to ensure that both the poor and the rich have the same opportunities in choosing the outcome of their children. Through this and by deciding where to draw the line on genetic enhancement procedures the government will make matters fair for all people.

Not all genetic engineering techniques are bad. Humanity just has to decide where to draw the line and how to go about it before they plunge in.

Works Cited

DNA at the Center of Debate. EBSCO 10, Oct. 1997. Online. (13 Jan. 1999)

Blaese, Michael R. Gene Therapy. Encarta Online Deluxe 1998. Online (21 Jan. 1999)

Gorman, Christine. Drugs By Design. Time 11 Jan. 1999: pp. 79-83

Henig, Robin Marantz, and Terry Miura. Tempting Fates. Discover 19.5 (1998) p. 58 11 Jan. 1999: pp. 68-73

Lemonick, Michael D. Designer Babies Time 11 Jan. 1999: pp. 64-66

Levine, Louis. Genetic Engineering. Encarta Online Deluxe 1998. Online (21 Jan. 1999)

Wright, Robert. Who Gets the Good Genes?. Time 11 Jan. 1999: p. 67

Footnotes:

  1. In cryopreservation, the eggs are frozen to preserve them. In the future, they may be thawed and used in other IVF cycles.
  2. The idea of modifying the genetic quality of a person.
  3. This fear became worse when human genetic engineering techniques became feasible around 1990.
  4. The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.
  5. The terms gen-rich and gen-poor were coined by Princeton University’s biologist, Lee Silver.

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