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Human genome poses hard questions

Feb. 13, 2001

In the past few months, some amazing breakthroughs have come in the world of human genetics. Beginning in 1990, scientists around the world commenced the process of mapping the human genome. Finally, last June, the exciting unveiling of the nearly finished chart was big news with bigger implications. We have come to the brink of understanding our existence on a new level, a genetic level. The question arises from this grand discovery: Where do we go from here?

Obviously, the augmentation of our understanding of the very code that defines us will be a helpful tool for medical community. The project is revolutionary in terms of finding causes and potential cures for debilitating diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes and certain mental illnesses.

Each of these diseases can set upon us without noticeable symptoms. With the developments stemming from the innovations made in the past decade, early treatment and prevention will be possible. Remember that, in addition to these gains, there is the prospect of other health benefits. For instance, weak vision, poor hearing and even allergies may be treatable afflictions in the future. Some will proclaim this scientific research heaven-sent, a valid response in terms of its importance to the future health of humankind. When asked about the implications the Human Genome Project may have on society, Sam Ikonne, a Dallas freshman, said 'the potential for dramatic health advances is what's important to me.' Is the possibility of a downside even comprehensible?

Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding 'yes' in respect to moral repercussions. The very scientists probing the possibilities of the new found wealth of information work for commercial organizations.

Commercialization of the code is already a reality in the genetic research realm. Steps have already been taken to patent genes. Genes, the very building blocks of the body that we claim as our own, are in jeopardy of exploitation. Some have questions concerning the purity of our natural framework. The feeble mind had just scratched the surface of human composition; should we then begin to tinker with the blocks that define our physical existence?

The ability to patent a gene is just one of the many disturbing occurrences to rear its head in the fight for a piece of market share. Additionally, the aspect of discrimination is a likely scenario in a highly competitive job market. Those future victims of unfortunate disabilities have the potential of being genetically screened and deprived of job opportunities. The knowledge of a risky venture for an insurance company is important. But however financially sound it may be for them, rejecting the afflicted applicant by genetic screenings is feasible but far beyond inappropriate. The legislative system may never be able to adapt quickly enough to the speed of innovation. Still, 'the benefits will outweigh the repercussions in the long run,' Freeland Ackley, a Conroe freshman, said.

Whether he and the others who agree with him are correct remains to be seen. So the question remains: Where will we go from here?

Answers are, of course, complicated and hard to agree upon. I think, as with most endeavors, we as a curious people should proceed with the most deliberate interrogations of our souls for the building of fences around our pool of mortal purity. What an embarrassment it would be to drown in our own pool of knowledge.