Genetic Modification

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is a shortened version of an essay I wrote on genetic modification in 2012.

Submitted: September 12, 2013

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Submitted: September 12, 2013

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“20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds, livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”. (Genesis 1, English Standard Version. The Bible)

This is the story of creation, as told by the English Standard Bible. It is, in many ways, the same as creation stories told by other religions. It tells how God created everything, the heavens and earth, the oceans, the fish and the birds, the beasts and finally, man-kind. For centuries, this has been the case; life has been very much out of our hands, except of course for reproduction. New breakthroughs in the fields of genetics, however, have changed this and scientists are playing God every day and toying with the very building blocks of life, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA).

The purpose of this discursive paper is to raise the questions surrounding genetic modification, cloning and the resurrection of extinct species. It will discuss the moral, ethical and the natural implications, as well as, detailing the potential benefits to medical research, reducing famine and stamping out Third World poverty.

Genetic modification is the term given to the process of using biotechnology to physically alter a plant, animal or other organism to meet a particular requirement, it allows these organisms to be permanently altered in ways that traditional breeding techniques cannot.

This process, since it was discovered, has caused wide spread debate on a global scale. The scientists, for instance, claim that the process is completely safe and that its only effects will be ones which will improve the Human race, whereas religious leaders greatly oppose it. An example of the potential improvements is detailed in an article from BBC News online. The article, submitted on the 2nd February 2006, states that scientists have used genetic modification to create a vaccine for a pandemic flu virus, such as, the lethal H5N1 Bird Flu virus. Dr Sambhara, from the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), when talking about this research, stated “This approach is a feasible vaccine strategy against existing and newly emerging viruses of highly pathogenic avian influenza to prepare for a potential pandemic”. The potential benefits to this are easy to see, if this vaccine was available when the H5N1 strain first mutated to become transferrable between humans, then countless people would not have lost their lives. Another article, also from BBC News online and dated 19th March 2007, details the successful but early laboratory tests of genetically modified mosquito’s that are resistant to Malaria. The idea being that those modified mosquitos are released into the wild and, due to their advantage over the Malaria carrying insects, replace them.

Again, there are clear health benefits to this and if it were to be successfully introduced into the wild, it would save thousands of men, women and children from dying every year, as a result of contracting Malaria.

The key difference between these articles however, is that, in the case of the mosquitos, the introduction of the genetically modified ones would result in the gradual eradication of the unmodified insects, which obviously carries with it, severe ethical implications. Nature selects the fittest to survive but we need to ask this question, is it right for us to give something an unfair advantage? In this case, the mosquitos are directly responsible for the spread of Malaria. Malaria, according to the (CDC), is the “5th main cause of death from infectious diseases worldwide”. For this reason, there is a definite reason to sway towards the arguments for the introduction of the genetically modified mosquitos. Would it be the same if a genetically modified grey squirrel was introduced to the wild, simply to stamp out numbers of the red squirrel? Obviously not, nature has selected the red squirrel to be more successful in the UK, than their grey counterparts and despite the fact that they are not native to the British countryside, the fact remains that since their introduction to the UK, they have flourished naturally.

So where does this leave the issue? Well, genetic modification can, in some cases, be of great benefit to the human race, especially when it comes to health and medical research. On the other side of the issue, however, with the ability to genetically modify a whole species, comes great responsibility and we need to, as a race, be extremely aware of what we are doing and the implications of it. For instance, if we release a modified species into the wild, what impact will it have on the food chain? What impact will it have on the environment? These are important questions and they are not exhaustive.

This brings me on to the next issue, which is the reintroduction of species’ which have been made previously extinct. It sounds like the subject of science fiction but it is, in fact, close to science fact. There is an article on the Daily Mail website, posted on the 4th February 2011, which states “Japanese scientists are behind an ambitious project to bring the long-extinct mammal back from the dead”, the Woolly Mammoth. The Mammoth died out thousands of years ago, towards the end of the last ice age. Nobody really knows the reasons why, some believe that they were hunted, by early humans, to extinction. Some are of the opinion that they could not adapt to the warming climate fast enough. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that these creatures were naturally selected, by nature, to cease to exist. This is the moral and ethical dilemma, although we may have the ability to bring these creatures back to life, do we have the right? I am not sure on this issue and I remain on the fence. I cannot, at this time see what the benefits would be and I can really only see a great deal of questions that cannot be answered until it is too late. For instance, we know very little about these creatures, how they lived, how they acted etc. How could we possibly care for the animal, once it was created? Could the animal even live in the world, as it is now? Remember, the diet of these animals relied on plant life that has long died out and evolved. What if the animal became sick? What medication could it have administered? How susceptible would the animal be to infections that it will have absolutely no resistance to? Nobody can realistically answer those questions until the animal is created and by then, it is too late and the animal could end up suffering as a result. The scientists plan to follow on from the success of other scientists who, two years previous, successfully cloned a mouse which had been dead for 16 years. They do admit, however, that in the “1,100 mice that were created, only seven were healthy” and defect free. To put that another way, 1,093 mice were born with defects and health issues as a direct result of our interference.

Genetic modification could, if used properly, resolve a great deal of the problems that developing countries face. What if a crop could be engineered to grow, even in arid conditions? I have already highlighted the benefits of a Malaria resistant mosquito, but what if disease could be eradicated completely? Disease spreads because people have no resistance to it, but what if everyone did? What if there was a way of engineering a Super Vaccine? Well there is, the Daily Mail posted a story on the 9th April 2012 which provides details of a vaccine which can “tackle 70% of lethal cancers”. The key word here is “lethal”, because if 70% of them are being fought by this super vaccine, then that is 70% more people beating cancer than there is just now. More than “300,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed in Britain each year and the disease kills around half this number annually”. This new vaccine, a first of its kind, has been developed and engineered and it is hoped to “be on the market by 2020”.

There is more too, in the UK, school children are given a BCG injection to immunise against tuberculosis. The immunisation is around 70 per cent effective but, as BBC News reported on the 28th May 1999, the “BCG vaccine... has virtually no effect on TB (Tuberculosis) in South India”. The BCG immunisation is really just the germ that causes tuberculosis in cows. It is close to the human strain but completely harmless, it works as a human vaccine by allowing the body to build up a natural immunity to tuberculosis. Although it is very effective in this country, it had very limited results in South India. Experts in the field of genetics, looked at the strain used to build the vaccine and compared it with the human strain. They noticed some key differences and used genetic modification to alter the strain on a cellular level, as explained by a Californian gene expert, Dr Marcel Behr, “a more effective version of the vaccine can be produced by "improving" the genetic structure of the cow tuberculosis bacteria to make it more like human tuberculosis”. Again, there is a clear and worthwhile reason to be using genetic modification and that is to aid the betterment of the human race.

There is no doubt that genetic engineering can directly benefit medical research by improving existing medications and treatments but also by creating completely new ones. There is another way, in which there could be vast benefits, and this is in the creation of completely new body parts and organs, using what are known as Stem Cells. The UK’s leading authority for stem cell research is the Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM), which heads up the Institute for Stem Cell Research (ISCR) in Edinburgh. Bruno Peault, a professor of vascular regeneration, and his team are responsible for studying “the biology of perivascular stem cells and their possible role in tissue development, renewal and repair”. In other words, Bruno Peault and his team are growing human tissues. What are the implications of this? It is easy to see that, people who will instantly benefit from this are, patients currently waiting on a suitable donor for transplants. The NHS publish the expected waiting times for patients waiting on a donor, at present, the average waiting time for an organ transplant is 451 days. An adult can expect to wait “1168 days” (over 3 years) for a kidney. Stem cell research is removing the need to wait for these patients and instantly improving their quality of lives. Below shows a graph which represents the amount of people who received a lung transplant between the years of 1999 and 2008, there would have been many more that were not given transplants due to a lack of donors. Bruno Peault and his team are actively trying to change this.

This is where the subject becomes severely controversial, if scientists are able to grow human tissue to order, and if they are able to successfully clone animals, what is to stop them from cloning people and growing exact copies of human beings to order? The American Medical Association (AMA) offers this statement on its website. “Animal cloning has produced some remarkable results within the last few years, which has suggested to some that there should be a way to produce a human clone within the next year”. Although there is no indication of a date as to when this statement was made, it is reasonable to assume that it was fairly recently. This organisation believes that we, as a race, are on the cutting edge of what we can achieve, both scientifically and technologically. The barriers which have prevented the cloning of humans are coming down, day by day. The AMA, like me, has concerns with this as we “do not fully understand the science behind the successes from animal cloning experiments”. As I have mentioned earlier, with reference to the cloned mice, animal cloning remains grossly inefficient and the chances of the cloned cell gestating and being carried by the surrogate host is around 2 out of 100. The animal is usually born with some form of birth defect and many of them, either do not survive long, or are terminated to prevent further suffering. The AMA also holds this opinion, “While scientific explanations for these failures remain to be defined, many researchers feel they represent nothing more than technical hurdles that will one day be solved. Even then it's survival beyond the perinatal period is unlikely. There is no reason to believe that any different outcomes will occur if and when human cloning begins… it is reasonable to conclude that future human cloning experiments will have the same high failure rates”.

Public opinion seems to be extremely clear on what we should or shouldn’t be doing when it comes to cloning. The general consensus is that, cloning for the betterment of medical research or for transplantation purposes, is slightly more in favour of it. Cloning for the purposes of creating a human clone is greatly opposed, as seen by the pie charts below.

So what is meant by “cloning”? The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) defines it as “a number of different processes that can be used to produce genetically identical copies of a biological entity”. It is important to note here that clones do exist naturally, as many plants and bacteria reproduce asexually and “produce genetically identical offspring". Natural clones, or identical twins, occur in mammalian life forms also. This type of clone is slightly different however as although the twins are almost genetically identical to one another, there can sometimes be slight differences, but they will both be genetically different to the parent DNA. There are three distinct disciplines of cloning, “Gene Cloning” is the science of cloning segments of DNA or genes, “Reproductive Cloning” is the process of creating exact genetic copies of a whole organism and “Therapeutic Cloning” is where stem cells are used for growing tissues and organs. To fully understand the arguments for and against cloning, of any kind, it is relevant to know the basics behind how cloning is carried out. The NHGRI offers this explanation, “Researchers routinely use cloning techniques to make copies of genes that they wish to study. The procedure consists of inserting a gene from one organism, often referred to as foreign DNA, into the genetic material of a carrier called a vector. Examples of vectors include bacteria, yeast cells, viruses or plasmids, which are small DNA circles carried by bacteria. After the gene is inserted, the vector is placed in laboratory conditions that prompt it to multiply, resulting in the gene being copied many times over… In reproductive cloning, researchers remove a mature somatic cell, such as a skin cell or an udder cell, from an animal that they wish to copy. They then transfer the DNA of the donor animal's somatic cell into an egg cell, or oocyte, that has had its own DNA-containing nucleus removed. Researchers can add the DNA from the somatic cell to the empty egg in two different ways. In the first method, they remove the DNA-containing nucleus of the somatic cell and inject it into the empty egg. In the second approach, they use an electrical current to fuse the entire somatic cell with the empty egg”.

In conclusion, I feel that genetic modification and engineering is the key to our future as a race. It has many benefits which could improve our quality of life, end suffering and protect us against disease. For this reason, I strongly believe that we need to explore this science completely. I do think, however, that we need to be very careful and cautious with how we proceed with this technology as there are many potential pitfalls which will need to be avoided. Yes, the benefits for medical research are clear to see but I do think that when it comes to the cloning of a whole person, we have to ask ourselves, why we are doing this? There are obviously many issues surrounding this subject, the main one being of an ethical nature. Is it humane? At the moment, I don’t think so. Too many animals are being born with too many defects, defects that are not normally found naturally. Another point I wish to make, briefly, is what if this technology or knowledge falls into the wrong hands? If we can engineer viruses to do mankind good and help us to heal or become immune, can someone not make one that can equally cause harm, death and suffering? The answer to that is, obviously, yes. It is completely possible for people to use this knowledge to instil fear and suffering, for their own gain.

I am, strongly, of the opinion that the Government needs to address this issue fully and raise the awareness of it. We need to, as a race, explore any avenue that can improve our way of life. The benefits of cloning are endless and, once the process is perfected and becomes much more viable, the possibilities are beyond our comprehension. There will always be opposition; almost every advance in our history has met some form of resistance. I think the main issue for opposition is fear, fear of what the implications are. Then there is the fact that it is grossly inefficient at the moment, which opens the doors for religious and human rights activists to oppose the process. What is needed, is more research and less fear, our race, in order to thrive and grow, need to embrace the fact that we have the power to create life.

On a final note, coming back to my opening quote from the book of Genesis, God created man in his own image; does this mean that when we finally clone a human, and thus create man in our own image, will we be gods?

 

 

SPECIAL THANKS TO MY SOURCES

English Standard Bible: Genesis 1, biblegateway.com (website)

What is Genetic Modification: csiro.au (website)

BBC News 2nd February 2006: Bird Flu, news.bbc.co.uk (website)

BBC News 19th March 2007: GM Mosquito’s, news.bbc.co.uk (website)

Centres for Disease Control - Malaria: cdc.gov (website)

Daily Mail 4th February 2011: Mammoths, dailymail.co.uk (website)

Daily Mail 9th April 2012: Super Vaccine - Cancer, dailymail.co.uk (website)

BBC News 28th May 1999: Super Vaccine – TB & BCG, news.bbc.co.uk (website)

Centre for Regenerative Medicine: crm.ed.ac.uk (website)

Organ Donation Waiting Times: organdonation.nhs.uk (website)

American Medical Association: www.ama-assn.org (website)

Cancer Research Uk: cancerresearchuk.org (website)

CNN: cnn.com (website)

National Human Genome Research Institute: www.genome.gov (website)

https://bruceleeeowe.wordpress.com/tag/cloning/ (website)

 


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