General Comment On A Review of Shaping Genes

- Darryl Macer, Ph.D.

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Science City, 305, JAPAN

Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 1 (1991), 83-84.


In the October issue of Bioethics is a review of the book Shaping Genes, written by Darryl Macer, by L. Skene; Bioethics 5: 342-6. The review did say that the bibliography was useful, and certain sections were adequate, but many criticisms were made. In light of this review a response is made, because some of the reviewer's comments are misleading and could be refuted, and readers of that review may be misled. There is a strong need shown for people to be aware of the current state of research, and this is especially true in the comments on gene therapy. A trip to the library to look up some of the references cited in this newsletter would help bring people up-to-date with current ideas on applications.

The number of deliberate releases of GMOs into the environment was said to be over 250 (Shaping Genes, p.130, which was true at the time of publication in October 1990), yet this is seen to contradict a later statement on p.139 saying that they have been "few in number", which if the whole sentence is read is clearer, "the only examples of intentional release of GMOs into the environment have been recent and few in number". The use of "few" is relative, relative to the number of human releases of organisms in total (include all agricultural plantings). The total number currently is between 400-500.

The inclusion of a discussion on the use of BST in cows, in the section on the regulation of foodstuffs produced by GMOs, is criticised as being unrelated ethically. While one ethical issue is animal welfare, the public concern is more connected to the use of genetic engineering. It is still a concern of people, and moreover it was in a section (p.171) titled "public acceptance of new foodstuffs", and it was not called an ethical problem.

The reviewer thought that chapter 14 on human gene therapy was one of the worst chapters, and said the text was full of inaccuracies: this is strongly disputed! The reviewer should read through the examples of gene therapy trials already underway, and those approaching the stage for human trials. The first trial of gene insertion into human cells put into a human being is correctly described in p.277. The idea of substituting correct genes for disease-causing genes has been performed in animal experiments in 1990, and thus could not be said to be beyond known technology as the reviewer states. The list of diseases that are being clinically tested in humans already includes some types of cancer, and gene therapy trials to treat diseases of the central nervous system, circulatory system, liver and lung, are not "very much" in the future; but may come soon. In fact, a trial involving liver is approved in the USA, and we can add some new tissues that are thought of as targets for gene therapy, such as muscle. Other comments in the review on which diseases are suitable for gene therapy are disputable, and research on gene transfer to cure PKU deficiency is underway, which cannot be disputed (p.280). Rather the point is made that in diseases with current cures, or treatments, any gene therapy used will have to be with little risk and with proven efficacy. One typographical error that is unfortunate is on p.277, there are only about 5 sufferers of ADA deficiency born annually in the USA, not 50 as appears on p.277. The world-wide number quoted on p.278 of about 40 births a year is approximate, and we should note that it is only the detected number. The point is that only a few children suffer from this disease.

As readers of this newsletter will have observed, there are occasional spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, but I hope that the understanding is not affected. The review does correctly point out that there are typographical errors in the book, and any number is too many. However, generally the reader should understand the intended meaning. There should not be substantive errors in the book or the newsletter, and if you should find any then please tell me.


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