Biotechnology and Politics – What To Do

One of the snags in a political system is that it isn’t always well-equipped to keep up with changes in technology. When the Internet came along, lawmakers were aghast at how to regulate it, or if it is to be regulated at all. Computers gave rise to software – a medium like books and music in some ways, but different in others. They’re still grappling over how to manage laws pertaining to software, and to adjust patent and copyright law to better fit this unforeseen media entity.

But if they’re having a tough time keeping up with electronic technology, they’re in for a real poser with biological technology. It is obvious from research that within our century, biotechnology will give rise to a host of new issues to deal with that we never saw before. Whether they come from our country or somewhere else, they’re definitely on the way.

Cloning is one issue that many of us have no idea how we’ll react to. A poll of Americans has shown that a sizable percentage believed that a cloned human would not have a soul. However, there’s a bright side to this: they might not object to cloned embryonic stem cells, at that rate, since to them clones have no life to take.

Then there is the matter of artificial DNA. One pictures the world of the movie “Blade Runner” with colorful replicant life forms living amongst us. But this isn’t too far off. In fact, in a recent science article in the Washington Post, experts have stated that “the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before ‘bio hackers’ working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.”. When these feats are possible, government controls will have to rush to update themselves to regulate what can and cannot be done in this area.

Tampering with existing DNA in already-living people is becoming commonplace. “Gene therapy” is where genes are inserted into a patient’s cells and tissues to treat a disease, usually a hereditary one. The effect is to replace a mutant gene causing the disease with a healthy one. Although the technology is still in its infancy, it has been applied in some cases with some success. This raises some interesting questions for the medical malpractice lawyers: Will we one day see a child suing her parents for allowing her to be born with Down’s syndrome? When we use artificial genes to replace natural genes, have we created a chimera?

At the end of these developments lies the ultimate science fiction scenario: genetic engineering. Literally playing God. Biological weapons have already been widely debated in politics already, and a biological weapon is nothing more or less than a super-germ created specifically to infect the enemy. So far, these germs have only been bred, not created from scratch. But beyond mere germs, what else could somebody do with a bio-engineering lab, a lot of scientists, a lot of money, and not much ethics? Perhaps breed a race of super-soldiers to conquer the world with?

There is also the matter of ownership of intellectual property. Many biology labs have already rushed to patent life forms that they might create in the future. This makes sense when you consider the case of genetically altered food crops – a case in point is a new strain of corn that has been designed to be insect-resistant, already growing and yielding crops in Kenya.

Other cases are manufacturing human insulin through a genetically modified bacteria and erythropoietin manufactured from genetically altered mice. All of this is already being done, but laboratories want to maintain some property rights before they just release their newly-altered life forms into the wild. In fact, much of the advanced medical treatments today are being deployed with the use of biological engineering in some degree. One of the earliest approved uses was the FDA-approved genetically-engineered hepatitis B vaccine, introduced in 1986.

The purpose of this article is not to scare anyone or promote fear-mongering. Biotechnology is already out there in the world, and it is clearly saving lives. But it cannot help but march forward, and sometime when the dust has settled, perhaps cloned or genetically engineered humans will be voting on what we can do to them, instead of the other way around.