Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Genes Without Borders: Biotech's Possibilities and Perils Know No Bounds

Adapted from my "Futurist" column in the March 16 issue of CQ Weekly.

Putting limits on some kinds of genetic research has always been a bit like trying to regulate spam. Somehow those unwanted and often-offensive junk e-mail messages continue to invade our inboxes, despite a five-year-old federal law that was supposed to lead to punishment for the most egregious senders.

Linking such an irksome inconvenience to the far larger ethical issues raised by research that has the potential to alter the course of human development might seem perilously flippant. But the link is this: If the scientific and technological activities that concern us are occurring mostly overseas, the laws and regulations we impose in our country often have little impact.

The problem with spam is that much of it is flung by e-mail servers outside the reach of any authority in this country. Likewise, the genetic research that might be most troublesome to many Americans may take place in labs that are far beyond the bounds of U.S. law.

The same is also true of the most promising areas of genetic investigation. President Obama alluded to that in his March 9 announcement overturning President George W. Bush 's 2001 limits on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. "Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work," Obama said. "And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives."

Balancing the exciting possibilities and frightening consequences of international genetic research is an issue a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee struggled with last summer. California Democrat Brad Sherman, the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade panel's chairman, is best known for his expertise on the spread of nuclear weapons and know-how. But the subject of this hearing was a different sort of arms race: the diplomatic and security implications of the spread of "genetics and other human-modification technologies."

In some ways, the testimony from the June 19, 2008, hearing reads more like a Hollywood pitch for a sci-fi thriller than a sober discussion of scientific reality and diplomatic policy -- with talk of biotech's potential for creating supersoldiers, superintelligence and superanimals, as the chairman put it. Witnesses mused about the convergence of nanotech, biotech, computers and cognitive science, with one warning that new applications could "put agents of unprecedented lethal force in the hands of both state and non-state actors." There were discussions of genetic discrimination, eugenics and the civil rights of humans and animals whose intelligence might be enhanced or whose genes might be altered or integrated to the point that definitions become tricky. And witnesses warned of a genetic divide, in which enhancements would go only to the most privileged societies or individuals.

Much like his political mentor, the late California Democrat George E. Brown Jr., Sherman came to Congress with a personal interest in scientific matters -- such as research on linking human and computer intelligence -- that were easier for him to pursue when he served on the Science Committee.

At the Foreign Affairs hearing, he acknowledged speculation on potential far-off technologies is easily subjected to "mockery" and "cheap derision." But the panel's other members and witnesses seemed to take the issues he raised quite seriously. Many drew comparisons to the rapid development and spread of nuclear weapons -- an analogy that brought the panel to more familiar ground: Could the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty be a template for international agreements to mitigate the potential dangers of genetic manipulation?

Jamie F. Metzl, executive vice president of the Asia Society, offered some of the most detailed thinking on what a treaty to curb genetic modification abuses might involve. One key requirement: The accord would need to be "permissive and flexible enough to keep the more scientifically aggressive countries, particularly those with the most to gain from the development of these capabilities, on board." At the same time, Metzl cautioned that any enforcement mechanisms "will be used by opponents of legitimate research to advance principles antithetical to the genetic engineering process as a whole."

He also noted that governments might not turn out to be the key players, especially as global commercial opportunities emerge. That would raise questions about "how to deal with non-state actors that could, for example, engage in such activities from ships based in international waters or, conceivably, on research platforms in space." (In addition to Metzl's testimony, his article in the Spring 2008 issue of Democracy -- "Brave New World War" -- also is worth reading.)

Creating a workable global framework for regulating fast-moving developments in genetic research will be daunting -- like the driest dry county in the United States trying to ban the sale of alcohol on a passenger jet zipping through its skies, six or seven miles overhead. Ongoing domestic and international disagreements over basic questions, such as whether to allow cloning human embryos for research purposes, point to some of the challenges.

As Sherman put it, "We cannot assume that everyone in the world will reach the same philosophical and moral answers that we do, especially when we do not know what answers we might reach."


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