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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.
  2. 2. If we don’t play God who will? Should there be limits to genetic engineering? Dr Helen Wallace Director, GeneWatch UK
  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
  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: </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: </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 ( </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>