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House Panel Discusses International Limits On Gene Study to Prevent Competitive Abuse

[Quotes CGS's Richard Hayes]

The Bureau of National Affairs
June 21st, 2008

Supersoldiers, superintelligence, superanimals, and supercomputers are a possible progression of today's genetic research, which is why an international consensus on this research and its application must be achieved, panelists told a House subcommittee on terrorism June 19.

After extolling the current and potential achievements of genetic research to treat and possibly cure those who are ill, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, began the hearing with a series of questions: “When, if ever, should it be permissible to utilize genetic technology not to alleviate suffering or deal with a malady, but to actually enhance human capacity? Where do we draw the line between therapies and enhancements? What manipulation of animal DNA is moral?”

To those who might argue that scientists in the West would never mix human and animal DNA, Sherman noted that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and added, “Not all technology is in the hands of the moral.”

Sherman said it is necessary to approach the issue with the assumption that, absent an international consensus binding all nations, some rogue state or a non-state actor will attempt to manipulate human genetics in “ways that would horrify us” to gain a national security advantage.

In his remarks, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) raised the spectre of the Nazi Dr. Joseph Mengele and his human experiments during World War II.

Nonproliferation-Like Treaty Suggested.

Dr. Jamie Metzyl, executive vice president of the Asia Society, a global and Pan-Asian organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia, told the subcommittee that “the greatest foreign policy challenge of our time will ultimately be how we as Americans and as an international community deal with our growing ability to manipulate our genetic makeup.”

Given how corporations and states tirelessly seek the smallest competitive advantage, Metzyl said it is almost impossible to believe that this type of competitive pressure will not become a driver of the human genetic manipulation process.

As examples, Metzyl cited how this year Britain passed a new embryology law that allows for the use of chimeras--human-animal hybrid embryos--for up to 14 days for research purposes (7 MRLR 314, 5/21/08) and that Singapore has been so public about its need to maintain a competitive scientific position in the world that U.S. scientists are working in Singapore because it has a “more permissive environment.”

The outrage in South Korea concerning Dr. Hwang Wu-suk's human cloning research, Metzyl said, was not that his research processes turned out to be flawed but that the South Koreans were hoping he would become a national champion and win the Nobel Prize. The controversy led to Hwang's ouster from high-level research positions and a series of regulatory changes in that country (7 MRLR 377, 6/18/08).

A completely unregulated international policy environment surrounding “these Promethean capabilities” will ultimately delegitimize critically important research, destabilize international affairs, and potentially harm the United States and the human race, Metzyl said.

He envisioned that a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty-like framework for human genetic engineering would:

•  allow states possessing greater knowledge in the field of applied genetics to share basic science capabilities with states that agree to accept common protocols for human genetic manipulation;

•  establish an international advisory committee of experts and ethicists to report on the latest global country-by-country developments in human genetic engineering and regularly re-examine the basic tenets of the treaty; and

•  require those states that allowed violations of the treaty on their territory to immediately stop the violating activity or face sanctions that could include a limitation of their access to some of the benefits of the genetic manipulation process.

Metzyl acknowledged that there may be problems with this approach and noted that the United Nations unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate an international human genetic manipulation policy. But Metzyl insisted that the process must begin again. “This science is moving extremely fast, and we must kickstart a national dialogue about a policy structure that can promote important scientific advances while avoiding a self-destructive genetic arms race,” Metzyl said.

Some Consensus Seen.

Disagreeing at least partly with Metzyl, Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics in Society, said that there was an emerging international consensus on a number of issues: the proper uses of the new human technologies, including widespread support for stem cell research involving embryos created but not used in the course of assisted reproduction procedures; the use of genetic screening techniques to avoid passing serious diseases to offspring; and prohibitions on reproductive human cloning, inheritable genetic modification, and genetic screening for nonmedical purposes.

Hayes also said there was widespread concern about the use of genetic technologies for enhancement purposes, the commercialization of human reproductive activities, and international trafficking in human genetic materials.

“So, this record is encouraging,” Hayes said, “but it's important to note that the majority of countries worldwide have not yet adopted any policies at all on these technologies. This policy deficit is an open invitation to rogue scientists and delusional demagogs.”

Still, Hayes concluded, it is his view that “the genie is not out of the bottle” and “we have the time and the capability to get ahead of the curve and do the right thing.”

Developing a 'Red Line.'

In the question-and-answer period, subcommittee members continually asked panelists about boundaries in affecting the human genome. Is there, for example, a consensus against a treatment of sickle cell anemia or Tay-sachs, which inherently affect the ability of offspring to have the disease?” Sherman asked. Hayes said he thought there was a clarity affecting different actions that could be taken.

Metzyl disagreed. “I think it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to draw that line because all of us have mutations of all types. That's the very underlying principle of human diversity, and as we have more and more information that we're trying to read through the PGD [preimplantation genetic diagnosis] process and the DNA analysis that comes with it, we're going to have a choice of which mutations are we selecting against and the flip side of that is which are the mutations that we are selecting for.”

In answer to a question from Sherman about “not only prohibiting what's behind the red line but keeping countries from getting within striking distance of the red line,” Metzyl said that she did not think that science could be limited and that the “red line” needs to focus on applications. “Because if we try to limit science, knowledge finds a way,” Metzyl said.

Sherman expressed disappointment in Metzyl's answer. “So you would let a country develop all the science it wanted [and be in a position] to do something terrible and threatening so long as they've got a professed reason to do all the research they're doing. I'm a little scared of that,” Sherman confessed.

“I don't know whether we're going to have to create a circumstance where all of humanity is denied the benefits of any technology that cannot be fully trusted to every country in the world. So we do have that issue,” Sherman concluded.



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