A decade ago, scientists announced that they had produced the first draft of the human genome, the 3.6 billion letters of our genetic code.
It was seen as one of the greatest scientific achievements of our age, a breakthrough that would usher in a new age of medicine. A decade later, Horizon finds out how close we are to developing the life-changing treatments that were hoped for.
Horizon follows three people, each with a genetic disease, as they go behind the scenes at some of Britain’s leading research labs to find out what the sequencing of the human genome has done for them – and the hope this remarkable project offers all of us.
The Cassiopeia Project is an effort to make high quality science videos available to everyone. If you can visualize it, then understanding is not far behind.
Code for Life: Beginning more than three and a half billion years ago, a tiny, primitive molecule encoded instructions deep within itself. Then it passed these instructions on to its children, who passed it to their children and so on – all the way down through time to all living things today.
The human genome, written in a code of just four letters, tells us who we really are – and that generates many questions!
Is this process of natural selection coming to an end? Should we choose the best that is in us for our children? If so, who gets to decide what is meant by “the best that is in us”?
From amino acids in space to human genes in corn … THIS is the story.
February 26, 2013 (Breakpoint.org) – In 1856, workers at a German quarry found some bones in a cave. They took the bones to a local teacher, Johan Karl Fuhlrott.
To Fuhlrott, while the bones appeared human, they were unlike those of any living European. Eventually, scientists concluded that the bones belong to an extinct species of hominid which they named after the place where the bones were found: the Neander River Valley, or Neanderthal in German.
Paleontologists estimate that Homo neanderthalensis were extinct no later than 25,000 years ago. Yet if one scientist has his way, Neanderthals could make a comeback.
George Church is a molecular geneticist who teaches at both Harvard and MIT. He recently made headlines when he told the German magazine Der Spiegel that it’s possible that he could see the birth of a Neanderthal baby within his lifetime.
After all, we’ve already sequenced an entire Neanderthal genome. Advances in the field of synthetic biology have made it possible to “read gene sequences into computers . . . alter them and then print a modified gene into living cells.”
All that’s missing is an “extremely adventurous female human” and perfecting human cloning, which Church views as “very likely,” technologically-speaking.
This begs the question of why we would want to bring back the Neanderthals in the first place. After all, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park,” Neanderthals had their shot, and they blew it.
Church’s argument for reversing their extinction is that “Neanderthals might think differently than we do.” This difference, coupled with their larger cranial size, might make them handy to have around “when the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever.”
If that sounds less than persuasive, it’s because those aren’t reasons, but rationalizations. Resurrecting the Neanderthal is a small part of a larger project that includes changing the human genome, and in the process, changing what we mean by the word “species.”
Reading the interview in Der Spiegel, what came to mind was a cross between Jurassic Park and the Island of Doctor Moreau. And like the protagonists of Crichton’s and Wells’ novels, Church seems fairly certain about the rightness of what he is proposing, and his and other scientists’ ability to pull it off.
Thus the German interviewer was on the mark when he told Church, “First you propose to change the 3-billion-year-old genetic code. Then you explain how you want to create a new and better man. Is it any wonder to you when people accuse you of playing God?”
Speaking of God, when asked about his religious beliefs, the ironically-named Church replied “I have faith that science is a good thing.”
Of course, science can be a good thing — the issue is whether science alone can decide what ought and ought not to be done. Not even the best-intentioned scientists know what constitutes “a new and better man.”
What’s on display here, folks, is scientism, which posits that science alone can “yield true knowledge about man and society.” If Neanderthals make a comeback — Church understates the difficulty of such an endeavor — it will happen because we can, not because we should.
It will be the result of “extremely adventurous” scientists deciding that they know what’s best. After all, science is a good thing and they are scientists, right?
Reprinted with permission from Breakpoint.org.
The genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, have been associated with hereditary forms of breast and ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs argue that Myriad Genentics’ patent hinders potentially life-saving cancer research and patient access to diagnostic testing. They are also pushing for the courts to recognize genes as “products of nature” and, therefore, unpatentable.
Conversely, Myriad argues that they do not own the patent on the gene itself; rather, they own the patent on the process for isolating the gene. The company also argues that patents on genes create a financial incentive for companies to fund genetic research.
The plaintiffs include genetic counselors and researchers, patients, cancer and women’s health organizations, and medical professional organizations.
Lisbeth Ceriani, a breast cancer survivor and plaintiff in the case, had to pay Myriad over $4,000 to receive genetic testing to see if her breast cancer was hereditary. “Women should not have to go through what I went through in order to take care of themselves and continue to take care of their families,” said Ceriani. “My genes belong to me. Knowledge about my own body should not be held hostage by a corporation.”
A federal patent court invalidated the patents in 2010. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) has upheld the patent twice, even after they were ordered to reconsider their ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Prometheus Laboratories v. Mayo Collaborative Services, which held that the patenting of certain medical diagnostics was unconstitutional.
“It’s wrong to think that something as naturally occurring as DNA can be patented by a single company that limits scientific research and the free exchange of ideas,” said Chris Hansen, my personal hero, and staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project . “The Court of Appeals failed to consider the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on patent law.”
The basis for patent law in the Constitution lies in Article I, Section 8, which says, “Congress has the power…to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Congress has delegated to the federal patent courts the responsibility to implement this power.