Recombinant DNA the precursor to animal-human hybrids

Recombinant DNA was to the 1970s what animal-human hybrids are to this age, argues one Australian source.

The analogy between recombinant DNA (1977) and animal-human hybrid embryos (2006) is too strong to resist.

Recombinant DNA involved the ability to take genes from one species and insert it into another, and in 1977, the U.S. was facing the question as to whether it should ban the technique or allow it in the name of medical progress. Opponents cautioned about 'creating Frankenstein in a lab.'

I well remember. Age is a relative thing, but in 1977 I was a sophomore in high school, steeping myself in the theories of Gregor Mendel, the monk who discovered (or anticipated) genetic theory by experimenting with peas (or some such) in his garden. Recombinant DNA was the subject of my high school science project -- put up for rumination in the then-sophisticated format of a giant piece of colored cardboard (imagine that! B.G. -- Before Google. Actually, before the laptop, Powerpoint, the IPod, and everything else).

Points out The Age, an Australia source: "At the 11th hour, scientists learned to get political. They persuaded the legislators not to enact obstructive laws but to implement a system of regulation. Research went ahead but only in hermetically sealed laboratories. And robust guidelines for safety and compliance monitoring became routine worldwide."

Indeed, the same strategy is recurring here. Regulate, don't prohibit.

That has been the same argument I've used for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM therapies). Regulate -- allowing informed consumer choice -- don't prohibit.

But there is a difference. Alternative medicine involves decision-making by individual patients, whereas with new technologies, the genie is out of the bottle, and whatever escapes from the lab -- literally or metaphorically -- can change our world forever, our humanity.

So as a species, we have to choose wisely.

Another distinction is that this technology involves experimentation, and that raises deep ethical issues. (I'm one of these people who is troubled by animal experimentation on the grounds of species impartiality -- for who is to say how would we feel if a species of 'higher consciousness' decided, on utilitarian grounds, to experiment on us?).

[NB: There's a side discussion here to be had about how they won't come in flying saucers, the clunky fantasy of the 1950's, but are more likely to already be among us in the form of nano-ships. And as "nano" becomes as common a word as "nanny," we'll start to understand more and more about the miniature world. 'Horton Hears a Who,' anybody? Don't boil that dust-speck ... it's an intelligent life form!]

The article goes on: "Today millions of people owe their lives to the decision to regulate rather than block research." True: that's the argument for creating these things. And tens of millions of them will be subjects of research -- not "human" subjects, of course, or they would be subject to informed consent, but a blastocyst can't sign a written form. [Is it nonetheless 'conscious'? We didn't think elephants could see themselves in a mirror. We didn't know mice could suffer from jet-lag ... but they do ... if you're blank enough to subject mice to jet-lag in the name of human knowledge (they die more quickly).

And next: "Had the scientists been unsuccessful, we would not now have a source of safe and reliable human insulin for diabetics or growth hormone for growth-retarded children. We would not have smart new cancer drugs such as Glivec, Iressa and Herceptin, that can tell the difference between cancer cells and healthy tissue. We would not have the blood cell growth factors such as Neupogen that have allowed 10 million patients to survive their chemo and radiotherapy. We would not have Ian Frazer's cervical cancer vaccine. We would not have the anti-retroviral drugs that keep millions of AIDS sufferers alive." True. We also wouldn't be eating genetically engineered food. Your strawberries wouldn't have monkey genes--or whatever is put in them to withstand the frost.

I think part of the problem with these debates is that they are weighted so as to be partially blind as to the tradeoffs.

Everyone wants to alleviate suffering, but we must remember that suffering has religious, as well as medical, connotations, and that ethical decision-making for the human species as a whole should take into account issues at the borderland of medicine and religion: those that touch the heart and soul, as well as the future of the human body.


Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen offers general corporate legal services, litigation consultation, and expertise in health law, with a unique focus on alternative, complementary, and integrative medical therapies.

Michael H. Cohen is also President of the the Institute for Integrative and Energy Medicine, also known as the Institute for Health, Ethics, Law, Policy & Society. The Institute serves as a reliable forum for investigation and recommendations regarding the legal, regulatory, ethical, and health policy issues involved in the judicious integration of complementary and alternative medical therapies (such as acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine) and conventional clinical care.