Playing God

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Helen Wallace talk at Multi-Faith Centre, Derby on 21 May 2008

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Playing God

  1. 1. www.scipodem.org.uk
  2. 2. If we don’t play God who will? Should there be limits to genetic engineering? Dr Helen Wallace Director, GeneWatch UK www.genewatch.org
  3. 3. Overview <ul><li>The limits to genetic explanations and solutions (James Watson is not God) </li></ul><ul><li>Some current controversies (Craig Venter is not God) </li></ul><ul><li>Who decides? (and what do they decide?) </li></ul>
  4. 4. Copyright Doug Marlette
  5. 5. What do twin studies tell us? <ul><li>Twin and family data does not tell us how important genetic differences are in determining a trait (but can show when genetic differences are not important). </li></ul><ul><li>All measures of familial aggregation (including “heritability”) “ can be significant even in the absence of any genetic component of disease ” (Guo, 2000). </li></ul><ul><li>If lots of different genes interact, genetic differences are (much) less important than if only one or two genes do. </li></ul><ul><li>Analysis is deterministic (removes choice). </li></ul>
  6. 6. Genetic association studies are mostly wrong <ul><li>Hirschhorn et al (2002). Of 600 positive associations between common gene variants and disease, 166 had been studied 3 or more times and “ only 6 have been consistently replicated ”. </li></ul><ul><li>Munafò et al (2003) combined 46 studies of common genetic variants and personality in health adults. Only one (5HTT LPR and avoidance) was statistically significant and this significance disappeared with a stricter test. </li></ul>
  7. 7. New whole genome studies <ul><li>Known genes do not explain why diseases and conditions run in families </li></ul><ul><li>The new ‘fat gene’ (FTO) explains only 1% of the variance in Body Mass Index in the UK population. </li></ul><ul><li>9 type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes genes explain only about 3% of the excess familial risk. </li></ul><ul><li>The same is true for 7 common breast cancer genes. </li></ul>
  8. 8. Genes and behaviour <ul><li>Most behavioural genetics is based on false assumptions: choice does exist (individual and social). </li></ul><ul><li>Introducing gene-environment interactions does not change the deterministic aspects of Ronald Fisher’s (1918) model. </li></ul><ul><li>Studies are not large enough to be statistically reliable. </li></ul><ul><li>Beware of hidden assumptions about race and social hierarchy (e.g. James Watson) </li></ul>
  9. 9. Copyright Gapingvoid.com
  10. 10. Some current controversies <ul><li>Gene tests and DNA databases </li></ul><ul><li>Hybrid embryos and human cloning </li></ul><ul><li>Synthetic biology </li></ul><ul><li>GM animals </li></ul><ul><li>GM crops </li></ul>
  11. 11. Gene tests and DNA databases <ul><li>A ‘genetic revolution’ in healthcare? </li></ul><ul><li>Claims to ‘predict and prevent’ disease. </li></ul><ul><li>Marketing strategy: pills and products for rich, healthy people. </li></ul><ul><li>Blaming genes: tobacco, food, nuclear industries. </li></ul><ul><li>Is ‘personalising’ medical advice good for health? (e.g. cancer, obesity) </li></ul><ul><li>Surveillance and discrimination (a massive expansion of the police National DNA Database). </li></ul>
  12. 12. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill <ul><li>See: www.hgalert.org </li></ul><ul><li>Allows hybrid human-animal embryos </li></ul><ul><li>Allows human GM embryos </li></ul><ul><li>Continues to allow cloned embryos (where will the eggs come from?) </li></ul><ul><li>Bans implantation of such embryos in a woman </li></ul><ul><li>Allows the selection of embryos with matched tissue types as ‘saviour siblings’ </li></ul>
  13. 13. Synthetic biology and GM micro-organisms <ul><li>See: wwww.etcgroup.org </li></ul><ul><li>Craig Venter’s claims about artificial life </li></ul><ul><li>Building gene sequences from scratch </li></ul><ul><li>Possible for viruses. Bacteria? </li></ul><ul><li>Health and environmental risks. Grey goo? </li></ul><ul><li>Patenting life. </li></ul>
  14. 14. GM animals <ul><li>More than 3 million UK animal experiments in 2006: increase mainly due to use of GM mice. </li></ul><ul><li>EU considering approval of meat and milk from cloned farm animals and their offspring. </li></ul><ul><li>Cloned animal embryos often have severe abnormalities: both mother and offspring suffer. </li></ul><ul><li>Some companies have offered cloned pets (cats and dogs). </li></ul>
  15. 15. GM plants <ul><li>Only 2 GM traits in commercial use: herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance. Soybeans (60%), maize (24%), cotton (11%), oilseed rape (4%). N. Am + Argentina/Brazil. </li></ul><ul><li>Biofuels - 1st and 2nd generation. </li></ul><ul><li>The IAASTD report (www.agassessment.org) </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Terminator’ technology and seed saving. </li></ul><ul><li>The GM ‘Golden Rice’ controversy. </li></ul><ul><li>Patenting ‘climate ready’ plant genes. </li></ul>
  16. 16. The missing debate <ul><li>What assumptions lie behind genetic explanations and solutions? </li></ul><ul><li>Is genetic research really the solution to everything: crime, hunger, cancer and ageing? </li></ul><ul><li>Is ‘genohype’ ethical? </li></ul><ul><li>Who decides research priorities? </li></ul>
  17. 17. Who decides (and what do they decide)? <ul><li>Bans on some applications? (e.g. GM humans, artificial life?) </li></ul><ul><li>Countering misleading claims? (e.g. by regulating gene tests? Or by education?) </li></ul><ul><li>Challenging assumptions and exposing conflicts-of-interest? </li></ul><ul><li>Safeguards (e.g. against discrimination) </li></ul><ul><li>An end to gene patenting? </li></ul><ul><li>Research directed in the public interest? </li></ul>

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