Altering genes

Daz darrenp at
Mon Jun 13 22:48:19 EST 1994

Michel Bordeleau (michelbo at wrote:
: >>With the ability through genetic engineering to alter genes that show a
: >>person will have a disability or illness, should we alter them?  That is,
: >>because we have the ability to do so, should we use this ability?
: >
: >
: >    Basically, I support using genetic therapy to cure "incurable"
: >diseases provided we are ready to deal with the increased population.
: >I support prenatal treatment of diseases like Downs Syndrome (If the
: >parents so wish), and predispositions to diseases like cancer.
: >I ONLY support these treatments provided they are available to the
: >general populace (Within reason), and not just the rich.

:    Another question which we should ask is wether or not to try to eliminate
: some of these genetic diseases althogether, not just curing people who are
: born with it.  I have read that it may be possible to alter the genes in the
: parents' germ line so that the offspring do not get the disease.  This way
: instead of waiting to see if the offspring(s) have the disease, we totally
: remove the chance of it in the current generation, and thus in future
: generations as well.

:    The problem with this is that if we do this, we may be dooming ourselves as
: we don't really know what other functions such genes may have, such as malaria
: resistence in the case of sickle-cell anemia.

:    So, should we deal with these diseases on an individual basis or try to
: eliminate them now and forever?

:   Michel

The human genome project is effectively capturing a snap-shot (or trying to)
of humans in the late 20th century - if we define working and broken genes
on the basis of this, and try to keep our genes 'working', then we preclude
the chance of further evolution.

Whislt I can see the obvious dangers re the whle eugenics debate, I find it
rather hypocritical that we permit (a) abortion on the basis of defective
genetic material - albeit controversially (b) drug therapy to offset the
effect of a missing/excess protein (ie gene), (c) the provision of the
missing gene product (eg insulin) (d) transplantation of tissue to provide
a missing gene product (attempted at least in the case of diabetes), but we
won't fix the underlying cause (or at least we feel squemish about it).

There have been a lot of negative feelings associated with genetic 
manipulation, but we have taken a very broad situation and labelled it
all troublesome because of the grey areas in the middle. There are things
which we should clearly do - you'd have a hard time arguing that it is evil
to replace a 'broken' muscular dystrophy gene, and you would have trouble
convincing most people that altering cosmetic traits such as height and
the oft quoted eye color is ethical. If you want to try and convince me that
MD patients etc etc still have good lives, and that we can't allieviate
all suffering and by not wanting t cope with these people, we are taking
away from the human capacity to handle suffering etc, then you should be 
arguing against all other forms of medical treatment to alleviate suffering.

Just because gene therapy was last on the scene, doesn't mean it is any 
different in terms of its alterations to a person. The aspect where it does
differ is germ-line modifications, but since a parent or doctor is already
making a decision re treatment that will affect a new-born child, what is
different about affecting subsequent children ?

Anyway, lunch is over now, papers to finish writing, I think this sort of
discussion is important and I welcome feedback.

Darren Platt, Department of Computer Science
darrenp at
Monash University, Clayton Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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