GENETICS: Time Devotes Issue To Biotech
This week's Time devotes its entire issue to "The Future of Medicine" -- namely, the unescapable influence of the biotechnology revolution. In his opening essay, managing editor Walter Isaacson writes, "Just as the discovery of the electron in 1897 was a seminal event for the 20th century, the seeds for the 21st century were spawned in 1953, when James Watson blurted out to Francis Crick how four nucleic acids could pair to form the self-copying code of a DNA molecule" (1/11 issue). A selection of articles included in the issue:
- The Drug Industry: Time reports that "genetics is the biggest thing to hit drug research since a penicillium mold floated into Alexander Fleming's petri dish." As there are 2,000 to 5,000 "genes that either cause, or predispose humans to, various diseases," pharmaceutical companies have a nearly limitless number of avenues for research. Companies are expected to make drugs "safer, more powerful, and much more selective," doctors will have far more foresight into a drug's efficacy for a given patient and information technology will likely play a far greater role in medicine (Gorman, 1/11 issue).
- Health Insurance: The same information that allows better health care would also "be invaluable to an HMO looking for ways to screen out riskier candidates and thus keep costs down." Foreseeing that "disturbing" trend, state Legislatures and Congress are rushing to pass laws that prohibit genetic discrimination -- more than 30 laws are on the books, and about 70 more are still pending, including 12 before Congress. However, Time reports that "it's doubtful that legislation alone can protect against" the misuse of genetic information, as many laws "prohibit insurers from ordering genetic tests" but not "from using tests that are already part of your medical record" (Hallowell, 1/11 issue).
- Prenatal Testing: With the current availability of tests that detect about 400 diseases in utero with up to 99% accuracy, Time reports that prenatal genetic testing "opens a Pandora's box of questions that tear not only into pocketbooks but at our psyches," raising serious questions that touch on abortion, eugenics and genetic privacy. About nine of 10 pregnant women in the U.S. already undergo some type of prenatal testing, usually blood samples, ultrasounds or amniocenteses. But the future will likely hold far more sophisticated methods that promise to detect genes that raise the risk of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's "as quickly as a supermarket scanner prices a load of groceries" (Golden, 1/11 issue).
- In a closing essay, James Watson warns against overly restrictive laws limiting genetic research, saying, "Never postpone experiments that have clearly defined future benefits for fear of dangers that can't be quantified." He argues that society's taboo against genetically modifying the human race are based on unfounded fears that "superpersons" would "make those who are genetically unmodified feel redundant and unwanted." According to Watson, "the first resulting gene-bettered children ... are as likely to pass as unnoticed in later life as the now grownup 'test-tube baby' Louise Brown does today" (1/11 issue).