Future of Work : The Life Science Revolution : From The Genome to Mankind
On February 12th, 2001 two different teams of scientists published the Human Genome. The date chosen is symbolic; it is indeed the birthday of Charles Darwin, the author of the theory of evolution. But the question is what does the Human Genome bring and what is the role of this in the evolution of Mankind ?
The Human Genome is nothing else than the list of the 4 bases ( A, C, G, T ) that constitute the DNA strands which, as shown by Crick and Watson, are folded into the famous double helix. Of course, determining the sequence of these bases is a great achievement, but how can it be used ? The Human Genome, by itself is pure data, it does not tell us what part of the DNA are active genes, what are the gene coding for, nor what and how we could modify them. The data can be used for diagnostics purposes: a specific part of the sequence could be shown to be prevalent in persons affected by a specific disease helping thus to determine the gene for this. This explains why so many drug companies are scouting the world for families with recurrent genetic diseases. Determining their DNA fingerprint could help identify that part of the genome.
But the Human Genome itself, as published, does not give a clue on what the genes are, how they work and how this could be used. It’s pure Data, no information.
Work is starting feverishly in many Drug Research laboratories to try to figure out some answers to these questions. Life Science is booming, and promised to a great future. Bioethics has emerged during the last few years as an important component of this research. Are we going to allow gene modifications in animals ? In humans ? What about cloning ? Cloning of sheep has led to the famous Dolly; the technique could be used on humans. Are Aldous Huxley predictions in “Brave New World” a thing of the next decade ? All around the world, philosophers, religious leaders, legislators are facing the issue and try hard to come up with guidelines of acceptable practices. The debate is just open and far from having achieved even a full-scale discussion. This is an important aspect, which will undoubtedly have great consequences on our future. If gene diagnostics is allowed in utero or right after birth and a genetic disease is found, what will be considered ? Abortion or high health care cost ? What are the parents going to decide ? Who will help them ?
The next question is about testing to evaluate risks. Could people be eliminated from jobs or denied insurance because they have a greater risk of a disease ?
Let’s assume genetic research found ways to modify the gene, which it will. Where will the boundaries be set ? Are we going to allow gene therapy for diabetes but not allow it to change eyes color ? We are, in fact, no longer sure that genes are the key. Could it be proteins ? A whole new science “proteomics” is emerging.
Gene identification is going to bring information out of the data that the Genome has created.
Information control battles between drug companies and research laboratories have already made the news headlines. Where does information manipulation starts ? Will our moral help deal with the question ? This question has not been answered when it comes to the news, why would one think it would be when it comes to genes ? One should think of “Citizen Kane” when talking about genetics.
At birth our genetic patrimony is set. Our genes are going to evolve, be modified only based on “accidents”, mistakes in replications or influence of the environment. Identical twins have the same genes, but they grow to have different personalities, sometimes extremely different ones. Environment, i.e. education, the things we are exposed to, experiences add to our genes to create our personality. This makes who we are.
I would like to suggest that this is the transition from information ( our genes ) to knowledge ( our personality ).
Psychology is the science trying to understand personality. But psychology has only addressed the environmental part of our personality, not the genetic part. It recognizes that some personality troubles must be genetic, but is powerless when confronted to these. Will tomorrow psychologist also be a genetic specialist ? Will we be allowed to modify the genetic component of our personality ?
Personality is not confined to Humans. Animals also have a personality. What makes Humans different from their co-evolution neighbors is thought. Homo Sapiens Sapiens : man knows that he knows. This has led man to try to achieve wisdom. Building on his personality and learning from his experiences, Man has developed the quest for a fundamental question: Who am I ? Is life limited to this planet in our Universe ? Is life limited to this Universe ? What is the objective of Man ? Why are we here ? What is our quest ? What is the purpose of Life ?
Religions have tried to bring answers to these questions. Philosophies have tried to help in the quest of Mankind’s Future. What is the objective ? Reach of Enlightment ? Some have reached Insanity in their quest for Enlightment, are these two close to each other ?
These thoughts can be summarized in a graph form :-
In the course of History as well as business, we usually go from data to information to knowledge achieving sometimes wisdom and more often insanity than Enlightment.
In the evolution of Mankind, the reverse path has been taken. Religions and philosophies were present long before psychology. The fundamental question: “who am I ?” has been raised long before we understood man’s personality not to mention the existence of the genome. As we move from the Genome to Genomics, we feel quite uncomfortable, mainly with the ethical questions. Is this because we are doing some of the road from right to left ( mankind to personality ) and some from left to right ( genome to genomics ) in the above graph ?
I offer than looking at the evolution of mankind in light of the above put the questions into the right prospective and will help in dealing with them.
The Life Science Revolution which the resolution of the Human Genome is bound to bring, will advance with a lot of difficulties unless the involved parties take the appropriate steps. The realization that all is dependent on the ethical behavior and the limits one puts to what is acceptable, and what is not, should push governing bodies to set up these rules. But Scientists and Drug companies are wrong in thinking that this is the negative side of their business progress. They should play a pro active role!
Bioethics, as a science, is a young one. Why don’t we see International Conferences on the “Bioethics of Genomics” where bioethicists, biologists, specialists of “reprogenetics”, drug companies, philosophers, religious leaders and government bodies could discuss and arrive to guidelines ? Unless these are set, the whole field will take much longer to develop and exploitation of the genome results will be seen as evil rather than beneficial.
Guidelines have to be acceptable to the majority of developed nations. It is today unacceptable to see that a doctor prevented from specific acts by the regulations in one country can set up a collaboration with another one in a different country where restrictions don’t exist, in order to continue…
© Copyright Alain Khaiat 2005