Genetic medicine

A few weeks ago a nervous co-worker of mine was trying to make conversation and asked, “What do you think about the Human Genome Project, now that it’s done? Are you worried?”

So I said, “Not really. I think it’s a wonderful thing in the long term. I might even receive some direct benefits from the research when I’m seventy years old.”

“Really?” she asked. “Aren’t you worried about how your genome can be stored in a computer somewhere, and insurance companies can access it?”

“Well,” I said, “in the short term, there might be some legal issues to work out, and that might slow down research and make it hard for people like me to get genetic therapy, but I’m guessing my children will definitely be better off. I mean, I know the press is trying to make a big deal out of this and scare people, but when it comes to scientific matters, you have to be skeptical of what the media tells you…”

I was about to explain “…because they tend to get things wrong,” when she interrupted and said, “Oh, yeah. Because of the mind control techniques they use.”

It was more or less at that point that I realized my co-worker was a complete loonie.

But I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who really thinks that genetic medicine is a good thing. I’d like to know my risk factors for certain diseases. It will help me to customize my lifestyle, especially as I get older, to keep myself healthy. Maybe I won’t live to be a hundred years old, but I tend to think I may come close. I would like my children to benefit from genetic screenings, so that certain common genetic defects could be corrected. I think the positive side greatly outweighs the negative side of a world where the statistical chance of a child being born with genetic disorders is greatly reduced.

I honestly don’t fear the sorts of things the media is trying to suggest will happen with the advent of the Human Genome Project. I know our legislative system isn’t perfect, but I certainly have enough trust in it to think they will put legal barriers in the path of medical insurance companies or corporations who try to discriminate on the basis of genetics or genetic risk factors. All the lobbyists in the world couldn’t stop such legislation from being passed eventually. I’ve seen Gattaca, and I liked it, but I don’t think it’s a particularly prescient movie, merely a relevant one. Nor am I particularly concerned about genetic experimentation on humans gone awry. I have enough trust in geneticists, doctors and lawmakers that any genetic procedure must be proven safe beyond any shadow of a doubt before it can be applied to human patients.

Am I the only one? It’s not as if I think the world will change overnight because of genetic medicine. In ten years, for example, I still think the immediate benefits will be minimal. But in thirty, forty or fifty years, as geneticists learn to decode the genome and identify disorders, I honestly see a wonderful change in medicine and a great leap forward in the human state of health.

I have no problem with any of the current genetic research being used for the benefit of humankind. With this research they might be able to wipe out things like MS, various forms of heart disease, arthritis, slow down aging, help in curing mental illness, and many other diseases. They might be able to create an immunity or cure for AIDS, viral infections and cancer.

Plus they might be able to create faster growing, better tasting, insect and disease resistant vegetables to feed the world.

With anything like this, people are going to bring up the downside and others will find ways to abuse it. Insurance companies might find a way to decline full coverage to a person who carries the potential gene for Alzheimer’s, businesses might decline employment to one who has a genetic combination towards drug abuse and so on.

Laws will have to be passed

Currently there has been somewhat of an outcry from those afflicted with dwarfism – the ‘little’ people – because the genetic trait has been found and they fear that if it is eliminated, then there will be no more of them.

People are already somewhat protesting genetically altered vegetables, fearing that they will somehow be poisoned or changed, and ignoring the fact that millions around the world starve each year.

The down side is the abuses people will no doubt find for genetic progress. Like the recent ploy of a major seed company which supplies farmers. They developed a form of altered seed, which will produce normally but farmers will not be able to harvest any of the crop to put back as seed and save on next years crop. The product will not produce a viable seed, forcing the farmers to buy all new seed for the next planting.

That is or was in the courts the last I understood.

Plus we currently have somewhat of a fixed value system for farm products. In order to make a fair living, the produce is sold at a fixed rate to market, the middlemen up the price and sell it to outlets, who add on their piece and sell it to us. Inject something like a better tomato, which grows faster, looses less yield to spoilage and produces more viable fruit per plant and the market gets flooded. We’ll like that, because instead of paying $1 apiece for one, we might get them at 4 for $1, like we used to.

However, the farmers and suppliers will then cut back on production in order to continue to regulate the supply and get the base prices they need to make a profit and we’ll be back to paying $1 each.

Or like how, during the beef shortage, prices soared, and after the shortage ended, prices dropped at the wholesale level but at the counter they remained high because retailers discovered people will pay increased costs for meat.

Our biggest benefit might come from the medical aspect of genetics. Like a genetic medicine which can regrow damaged sections of the heart after an infarction or dissolve clogs of cholesterol in the blood stream.

Now, we just have to contend with the superstitious fools with big mouths who will no doubt try to get any such advances stopped on religious and moral grounds.