GENOME RESEARCH: Fraught with Potential Benefits, Abuses
As the 21st century unfolds, the new biology of genome research will provide humanity with the "complete genetic blueprint of a species," offering both the power for "positive change" and "new levels of abuse," genetic researchers Dr. Craig Venter of Maryland-based Celera Corp. and Dr. Daniel Cohen of Paris-based GENSET write in a Los Angeles Times editorial. The genomic information will "transform medicine and the medical industry," allowing doctors to determine whether patients are "at-risk" for certain diseases. The authors predict that it could eventually be used to treat patients with genetic therapy. While this improved ability to detect disease brings new possibilities, according to Venter and Cohen, it also carries new perils, such as genetic discrimination. As the authors explain, "there will be a gap of years, if not decades, between this discovery and a cure based on the targeted gene ... individuals so diagnosed might well be discriminated against by insurance companies ... or employers." They suggest establishing a "worldwide parliament" -- a deliberative body of about 60 scientists and philosophers -- to advise decisionmakers in business and politics on the ethical questions surrounding human genomics. As the authors conclude, in the "Age of the Genome," the success of humanity depends on the "prudent application of [its] accumulated wisdom" (Venter/Cohen).
In a press release issued by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Advocacy Director Jamie Court also warns that the genome research "opens a Pandora's box for the balance of power between corporations and humans." He calls for an "absolute seal" on all DNA tests, asserting that "[i]f corporations can read a person's DNA, they can control their fate." According to Court, companies could use genetic information to restrict employment, educational, insurance and financial opportunities. Court advocates stiff penalties for corporations that violate individual genetic privacy, a crime he equates to "dealing crack at an elementary school." Calling genetic privacy the "ultimate stakes" for Americans, Court concludes that "people's rights to control their lives should trump any corporation's right to knowledge about them that could predetermine their future" (Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights release, 6/26).