Let us rid society of genetic defects, says DNA pioneer

From: Moorad Alexanian (alexanian@uncwil.edu)
Date: Mon Apr 16 2001 - 09:41:54 EDT

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    Let us rid society of genetic defects, says DNA pioneer
    By Steve Connor, Science Editor
    16 April 2001
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    Leading article: Genetic research to eliminate disease should not be prevented by fear

    James Watson, the "father" of DNA science, has called for the law to be changed so that scientists can alter the genes of sperm, eggs and embryos and so rid genetic defects from future generations.

    Dr Watson, who with Francis Crick shared a Nobel prize for the discovery of the DNA double helix in 1953, says that fears over the creation of "designer babies" are misplaced and that the potential benefits of controlling the ultimate engine of human evolution far outweigh the risks.

    Altering the genes of sperm, eggs and embryos so-called germ-line gene therapy is specifically outlawed in Britain, America and many other countries, ostensibly because of the risks of meddling with genetic material and introducing possible side-effects that will be passed on to subsequent generations. There are alsoethical and moral concerns about tinkering with human DNA to improve a family's genetic stock either by eliminating "bad" genes or introducing "good" ones. Critics say it raises the spectre of eugenics, as practised by the Nazis.

    Dr Watson, who played a formative role in the human genome project and is president of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, argues passionately in The Independent today for society to review its opposition to germ-line gene therapy.

    "I strongly favour controlling our children's genetic destinies. Working intelligently and wisely to see that good genes dominate as many lives as possible is the truly moral way for us to proceed," Dr Watson writes.

    Answering those who even oppose the genetic modification of plants and animals, he says: "To my knowledge, not one illness, much less fatality, has been caused by a genetically manipulated organism."

    Attempts to prevent germ-line gene therapy on humans are reminiscent of the measures designed to limit the use of DNA manipulation 25 years ago when scientists agreed to a temporary moratorium on the technology, Dr Watson says.

    "The moral I draw from this painful episode is this: never postpone experiments that have clearly defined future benefits for fear of dangers that cannot be quantified," he says.

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