Biotechnology and politics – What needs to be done?

One of the pitfalls of a political system is that it is not constantly up to date with changing innovation. When the Internet emerged, lawmakers were baffled as to how to control it, or whether to regulate it at all. Computer systems triggered software applications – a medium like books and music in some ways, but different in others. They are still wrestling with how to handle laws related to software applications and how to change patent and copyright law to better accommodate this unexpected media entity.

But if they are already having trouble keeping up with electronic technology, they will have a real problem with biological innovation. It is clear from research that biotechnology will unleash a host of new problems in our century that we have never seen before. Whether they come from our country or from other countries, they are definitely on their way.

Cloning is one problem that many of us don’t know how we will respond to. A survey of Americans found that a significant portion felt that a cloned human would not have a soul. But there is a bright spot: They may not object to cloned embryonic stem cells because, to them, clones have no life.

Then there’s the matter of synthetic DNA. One imagines the world of the movie “Blade Runner,” where living, replicative life forms live among us. But that’s not so far off. In a recent science article in the Washington Post, experts write, “Innovation is quickly becoming so easy, experts say, that it won’t be long before ‘bio-hackers’ working in garages will download genetic programs and turn them into novel life forms. If these feats are possible, government controls will have to rush to regulate what can and cannot be done in this area.

Interventions in the DNA of already living people are becoming commonplace. In “gene therapy,” genes are inserted into a patient’s cells and tissues to treat a disease, usually a genetic one. This replaces a mutated gene that causes the disease with a healthy gene. Although this technology is still in its infancy, it has been used with some success. This raises some intriguing questions for medical malpractice lawyers: Will we one day see a child sue his parents for allowing him to be born with Down syndrome? If we use synthetic genes to replace natural genes, have we created a chimera?

At the end of these advances is the ultimate science fiction scenario: genetic manipulation. Literally playing God. Biological weapons have already been widely discussed in politics, and a biological weapon is basically nothing more than a super germ specifically engineered to infect the enemy. So far, however, these bacteria have only been bred, not manufactured from scratch. But what else could someone with a bioengineering lab, lots of scientists, lots of money, and very little ethics create besides simple germs? Perhaps produce a race of super soldiers with which to rule the world?

There is also the issue of copyright. Numerous biology labs have currently rushed to patent life forms they might produce in the future. This makes perfect sense, given the case of genetically modified food crops – one example is a brand new variety of corn developed to be resistant to insects that is already growing and yielding in Kenya.

Other examples include the production of human insulin by genetically modified bacteria and erythropoietin from genetically modified mice. All of this is already being practiced, but the labs want to retain some housekeeping rights before simply releasing their newly modified creatures into the wild. Indeed, many of today’s sophisticated medical treatments are being developed to some extent with the help of biotechnology. Among the earliest approved applications was the FDA-approved genetically engineered hepatitis B vaccine, introduced in 1986.

This article is not intended to scare or alarm anyone. Biotechnology already exists in the world, and it clearly saves lives. But it cannot help but advance, and at some point, when the dust settles, cloned or genetically modified humans may be voting on what we can do to them, rather than the other way around.

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