Tuesday, March 11, 2008

To Gene or Not to Gene

You will be reassured to know that the Vatican is still in the sin business, or more accurately, the anti-sin business. I guess that shouldn't have surprised me. With new kinds of human activities would come new kinds of sins. Recently, Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, the head of the Vatican's sin police at the Apostolic Penitentiary, was asked what constitutes new sins in the twenty-first century.

The esteemed monsignor cited violation of human rights, genetic manipulation, drug and alcohol abuse that "weaken the mind and cloud intelligence" and the imbalance between rich and poor as new sins of humanity. Also on the new sin list in the last several years has been highway accidents caused by road rage and the rape of the environment.
" 'If yesterday sin had a rather individual dimension, today it has a weight, a resonance, that's especially social, rather than individual,' said Girotti, whose office deals with matters of conscience and grants absolution."
When Monsignor Girotti was asked about the recent bout of priest sex scandals that plagued the Church, he "acknowledged the 'objective gravity' of the allegations, but contended that the heavy coverage by mass media of the scandals must also be denounced because it 'discredits the church.' " One can see that the Vatican's head sin policeman has no intention of opening up that can of worms. It would appear that enlightenment comes slowly to some and not at all to others.

But, having said that, the monsignor was on to something with his mention of gene manipulation and the concept of group responsibility. As we move forward with genetic and embryonic research and its many applications, ethical concerns abound and few have been answered at the group level in a comprehensive fashion, politically or otherwise.

For example, a TIME magazine essay by Nancy Gibbs entitled "Wanted: Someone to Play God" states: "As medicine redraws the map of what's possible when it comes to making children, we all have an interest in asking how far we should be allowed to go" (3-3-08, p. 68.) American politicians have been loath to jump into the foray on this one. Because of that trepidation to outline reproductive guidelines in relation to embryos, Ms. Gibbs believes that it is a good thing that most doctors are ethical individuals "since there is nothing stopping them from implanting 10 embryos in a woman hoping to give birth to a softball team."

Europe has taken a different direction in this regard because these governments actually pay some of the costs. Gibbs explains: "Italy and Germany forbid embryo storage; England limits doctors to implanting two embryos, or three if a woman is over 40. Sweden and Belgium allow only one. Many lawmakers are driven less by moral than medical concerns for the health of mother and baby and the costs associated with premature and multiple births."

Of concern in the USA are the half a million left over embryos on ice--are they people or property? Could they then be sold? When genetic research is a bit further along, will it be possible to cull the worst and keep the best? These and many more questions have yet to be answered in a comprehensive fashion. Ms. Gibbs concludes:
"This is a moral wilderness, full of hope and traps. I don't expect aspiring parents to bring order to it when all they want is to survive the journey and start a family. That job is surely one for policymakers, to monitor the immense social and scientific experiment we've been conducting in private and make sure that we weigh the risks before we embrace the promise."
A new Democratic President--who will not be burdened with neo-con values--might want to tackle this Herculean task. It would certainly take courage and political will, but would be an enlightened endeavor. As Einstein once said: "Any fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

Speaking of Europe as I have been doing, they are ahead of us on another genetic front--that of forensic DNA tracing that consists of keeping an extensive DNA database of arrested individuals. In 1995, England started a DNA database which now contains 4.2 million records of folks who've been arrested, even for minor infractions. No conviction was necessary to be included on the list.

With this large bank of information the authorities are able to conduct "familial searches" that provide near matches, rather than identical matches. A few very old crimes have been solved with this new technique--one involved a local, upstanding man now convicted for a rape twenty years ago. He was traced through a close relative, but some have responded in outrage at the government's reach. The WSJ reporting in a front page article quoted a Harvard Medical School professor as saying the use of familial tracing would increase criminal apprehension by 40%, but would "raise new legal challenges, as a new category of people effectively would be placed under a lifetime genetic surveillance" (2-23/24-08.)

Genetic profiling has been around since 1984, but its inventor now asks if it's ethical to keep DNA data on innocent people, such as people arrested but not convicted of a crime. In the US, a national DNA database contains 5.6 million records, mostly of convicted felons, and few would argue with this use of personal data. Eleven states, however, have passed laws like those of England, allowing DNA profiles to be stored for those merely arrested and not convicted. Civil libertarians say this is going to far because it "places sensitive personal information in the hands of the government" which has been known to abuse the privilege.

It is true, governments have often not acted in the best interest of its citizens. One area of particular genetic concern to me is the leaching of pharmaceuticals into the ground water, and EPA's less than candid response to the problem. Ten years ago I began looking into this matter because a small article caught my eye in one of the science magazines. The concern at that time was the number of genetically mutated frogs and alligators as well as feminized-fish in Florida and other places, such as northern Minnesota.

What's more, fertility rates in human males was dropping dramatically worldwide. At that time I shook my head at the irony of it all. Here, we were worried about being killed off through violence like wars, when in reality we were simply and silently being rendered infertile.

At some point, the government convened a meeting to look at the situation, but nothing much happened in the intervening years, except an occasion article on the topic, which I always read with interest. However, recently, the Associated Press conducted a five-month investigation and found that pharmaceuticals polluted most of the groundwater in the United States--in trace amounts. Contained therein were every conceivable drug, including the illegal variety. When Benjamin Grumbles of the EPA was asked to comment, his response smacked of the politically acceptable: "We recognize it is a growing concern, and we're taking it very seriously."

Obviously not as seriously as the Associated Press. Their National Investigative Team "reviewed hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They also surveyed the nation's 50 largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states." What they uncovered should keep us awake at night. The bottom line--no water is free of pharmaceuticals, even rural or bottled water or deep aquifers.

The EPA tells us that the amounts are tiny, so as not to worry. However, reports from 10 years ago said it was the combination of drugs, even miniscule, that were effecting the frogs, alligators and fish. The combined contaminants settled into the muck at the bottom of the lake, then were progressively taken up the food chain. Keep this in mind as you hear more about this potentially incendiary problem and future campaigns against the overuse of medications.

The solution may be in our own genes. It was previously thought that it took eons for genes to adapt to a changing environment. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine, February 2008, reported on a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that concluded: "Genes have changed more in the past few thousand years than in the past few million because of altered living conditions. . . [and] this change is ongoing." Thus, surviving what we have created may be the work of those tiny genetic factories in us whose main role may be to save us from ourselves.

And finally, on the News You Can Use front, you will be delighted to know, I'm sure, that anyone born between 1950 and 1970 contains a very distinct carbon-14 isotope print. This piece of information came to light when reading an article in Wisconsin Outdoor News on determining the age of the state's sturgeon. A brand new technique was created that dated those fish born between 1950 and 1970 based on this unique carbon 14 isotope, and the information is being communicated worldwide to other sturgeon growing regions. Turns out these humongous fish are older than originally believed, a fact that will affect how many are harvested annually. So much for the fish, now on to those of us born during these fateful years.

During the course of their research, these fish biologist did some digging and found that the atom bomb testing done during the 1950's - 1970's left an indelible mark on the environment and everything in it, including us. Every year after 1958 when atomic bomb testing was ramping up, a greater level of the carbon 14 isotope was spread far and wide. These levels are so accurate, they can be used to precisely measure age, and it was this breakthrough that contributed to the ability to age sturgeon. Cool, huh? I wonder if this affected our genes as well? Maybe AP will do an investigative story on that in ten years as these baby boomers come of age.

Todays' Weather Report: It was absolutely gorgeous today at 44 degrees. If I sound delirious, I am. You should have seen me out in my shirt sleeves taking in a few rays. That cats were running around outside like there was no tomorrow, except Beaner, of course, who snoozed the day away.

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