This month our regular columnist Philip Dinham takes a look at one of the more controversial topics of this century which is being highly debated worldwide...genetic engineering of humans.
Commentary Jamaica Magazine

Is genetic engineering good or bad for humanity?

In the 21 St Century, scientists and medical doctors have undertaken to modify the physiological make up of plants and humans while eradicating diseases which plague the lives of all peoples of the world. This makes for considerable changes in the lives of mankind. Genetic engineering, a noble and promising initiative for some, an unknown science which impinges upon the ethics and morality of life for others. Genetic engineering as defined by Webster’s dictionary is the “genetic modification and gene splicing in the process of manipulating genes in an organism, usually outside of the organism’s normal reproductive process”. For scientists genetic engineering is a new way of diagnosing and affecting genetic defect in human and plant life.

Consider that we do not completely know everything about genetic modifications, the question of whether genetic engineering is bad or good could be a little premature at this time. However, it is a topic which rages on across the societies of the world. Should man have the right to interfere with the genetic sequence in humans, should man be allowed to play God? I honestly believe that if medical scientists and medical doctors are determined to save lives and can prove that their procedures are safe and have the ability to cure diseases and improve humanity, then genetic engineering would be a good thing for all peoples of the earth.

Gene Therapy Works

Much of the controversy about genetic engineering surrounds the attempt to clone human beings. The ground swell of support among advocates for genetic engineering has steadily been correlated with the success stories of gene therapy and stem cell research. It’s more than just science now, for when a doctor is able to replace defective genes with healthy genes in a process called gene therapy. He/ she are able to heal the sick, and raise the bed ridden from terminal illnesses. The case of a four year girl, Ashi DiSilva, is one which shows us that cutting edge genetic therapy and procedures do work. Ashi in the year 1990 became the first patient to receive gene therapy for a rare disease called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disorder, (SCID). A debilitating disease caused by genetic mutation which results in the absence of an important enzyme which leaves the carrier of disease severely weakened and incapable of fighting off any infection. Ashi’s parents already saddled with two children who had become disabled by SCID decided to face the unknown risks of genetic engineering. The results gave this family a new lease on life. Using genetic therapy doctors were able to place a normal gene which does not carry the disease into some of her cells. Dr. W. French Anderson, a researcher with the Gene Therapy Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute “took her blood cells, her immune cells, put in the gene that she was missing and gave her corrected immune cells, and he along with a team of doctors did that a number of times. Her last treatment was August 1992 and she is now a delightful, absolutely normal 14 year old girl who does all the things that normal kids ought to be doing”. Today Ashi a healthy adolescent living an almost normal life, Gene therapy like vaccines, blood transfusions, pace making transplants and organ donor therapy can make a difference in building quality lives.

Stem cells research filled with much potential

With euthanasia already legal in some European countries and sweeping legislation in place which allow one’s spouse or parent to have the final say in whether you should have the right to life while suffering from a terminal illness. The choice of life for an individual suffering from kidney failure, chronic heart problems, lung damage may involve having a organ transplant, but, all too often finding a donor ready, able and willing to help becomes an obstacle in making a recovery. Stem cell treatment is probably the only answer being offered in righting the wrongs of diseases caused by genetic failures. Cells that grow and divide in the body without limitations, given the proper signals can become any other type of cell. These cells known as stem cells provide healthy tissues that may replace damaged organs such as the pancreas, spinal cord, and even the outer skin hurt by burns. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently shared how researchers have developed a versatile human embryonic stem cell capable of potentially becoming any cell in the body. With stem cell research the scientists are now able to grow cells into new organs. Opening the door for the use of specially developed cells into transplantation medicine disclosed Korean scientists at the 2004 annual meeting of the, AAAS. They were able to collect embryonic stem cells from the resulting cell mass from inside cloned blastocysts, these cells carry the nuclear genome of the individual, after differentiation they could be expected to be transplanted without immune rejection for treatment of degenerative disorders”.

 

Stem cells are just a step toward being able to help treat degenerative diseases such as strokes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart, lung, and liver diseases which occur because of the result of organ breakdown and failure. (sciencemag.org). New research which scientists are hoping to be able grow organs in laboratories while shredding the organ transplants waiting lists. Sounds far fetched, yet, who knows one day the medical industry and the consumers of medical products will be the sole beneficiaries of the new procedures learnt from stem cell research.

Genetic modified organism increases food supply

The bio- technology involved in genetic engineering of the human body cells is also being practiced in agriculture. It is now possible to improve the quality of plants which contribute to our food supply. The economic potential from genetically modified foods are multifold. The United States domestic economy will benefit from new trade agreements which make genetically modified products available to the market. Japan the third largest economy in the world is a major importer of genetic modified food products, already in Tokyo, genetically modified corn, soy, green vegetables and cotton are being imported and used as feed for livestock. While the Japanese consume more genetically modified foods than any other nation, genetically modified rice has not been allowed to compete with organic rice. With forty percent of California’s 500 million dollar rice industry is exported to Japan, the economic impact of increased agricultural trade between the two countries is enormous. Moreover, the possibility that farmers may be able to include genes for enzymes required to make vitamin A in rice will be enough to improving the quantities of vitamin A and help to greater reduce premature blindness. Mankind also stands a chance at alleviating global poverty with genetically modified plants as greater output at harvest will allow farmers the ability to hustle for greater profits at lower prices to the consumers.

According to a United Nations Development program, human development report, many of the “genetically modified varieties of rice, soybean, millet, and cassava plants have been shown to have 50 percent higher yields. These plants mature 30 to 50 days earlier and are substantially richer in protein, they are also far more disease and drought tolerant and resistant to insect pests being able to fight against weeds. They will also help cost because they can be grown without fertilizer or herbicides, which many poor farmers can’t afford”. “In China, for example, more than four million small farmers are growing insect-resistant cotton on about 30 percent of the country’s total cotton area. Yields for insect-resistant cotton were about 20 percent higher than for conventional varieties and pesticide costs were around 70 percent lower. Pesticide use was reduced by an estimated 78 000 tonnes in 2001, an amount equal to about one-quarter of the total quantity of chemical pesticides used in China. As a result, cotton farmers experienced fewer pesticide poisonings than those growing conventional varieties”.

Professor Nigel Robinson, at Newcastle University Medical School, England, and other researchers agree that genetic modifications will also benefit from higher yields in crops. “He explained that because of selective breeding of plants over thousands of years, the nutritional quality of crops had suffered. There is now the potential to put back into food nutrients they have lost during selective breeding. Plants are the principle source of iron, the World Health Organization says there are over 3.7 billion suffering from iron deficiency diseases”.

In my opinion genetic engineering on its merit and demerit alone serves as a new cutting edge research that will shape the future of mankind in some way or the other. Its incumbent upon each individual to determine based on his own beliefs whether it is a good or bad thing for them. The fact that famine stricken poor countries, chronic, terminally ill, and disabled human beings may actually have a chance at a more prosperous and full filling life, where they otherwise wouldn’t have mobility, is enough for me to consider that genetic engineering is a good thing for humanity.

About the Writer, Philip Dinham

Phil Dinham is a member of our Jamaica prime time news team. He remains a Jamaican citizen in Ft Lauderdale, United States where he is an Arts and Science major at Nova Southeastern Univeristy. Philip is a certified media professional with over six years of experience in formal media relations and radio broadcasting. Comment on this article and all Jamaica Prime Time presentations by writing respective authors at [email protected]

About the author

Phil Dinham