A genetically engineered future?

By Kevin Leahy

Genetic engineering and genetic discrimination for a long time have been the stuff of science fiction. The movie “Gattaca” portrays a two-tiered dystopian future where designer babies are the norm and one’s genes determine how far he or she can advance in society.

Long before that, the Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, envisioned an even stricter caste-stratified world in which the genetically privileged live in luxury and wealth, while genetically-engineered drones do the grunt work of society. One of the primary reasons these scenarios remain in the realm of fiction is science has not yet given us the full capacity to genetically test for and design away “undesirable” traits.

That, however, may be slowly coming to an end.

With each passing year, research yields more information about our collective genetic makeup. Yesterday, genetic researchers at Hebrew University in Jerusalem announced a technique to detect anxiety disorders simply by sampling a patient’s blood; this is just the newest find in a series of scientific breakthroughs that have given doctors the ability to detect a myriad of inherited diseases and traits.

Additionally, in 1997 embryologist Jacques Cohen, Ph.D., aided infertile couples in having children who had extra genetic material added at conception, making the resulting babies the world’s first genetically engineered human beings.

It seems likely genetic testing and engineering may radically alter society; the question becomes, how do we prepare for the coming changes?

To quote author William Gibson, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” Nobody knows that better than former Chicago Bulls center Eddy Curry.

Curry, who suffered a heart arrhythmia last season, was asked by Bulls management to undergo genetic testing to determine whether or not he has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that could kill him. He refused.

“If employers could give employees DNA tests, then they could find out if there’s a propensity for illnesses like cancer, heart disease or alcoholism,” said Alan Milstein, Curry’s attorney. “They will make personnel decisions based on DNA testing.”

Considering many corporations already test prospective employees for drugs, it seems plausible Milstein’s prediction may come true. Imagine being denied your dream job because a prospective employer discovered you may develop multiple sclerosis or diabetes someday.

Perhaps it’s time to foster a national discussion on genetic privacy.

Some states have already passed laws governing the use of genetic material, but a national standard would ensure the protection all Americans need. Such a law ought to be based on existing state laws such as New Jersey’s Genetic Privacy Act, which states, “a person’s genetic information is private property and cannot be collected, retained or disclosed without written consent.”

Some people may question the need for such laws; but we have an ugly legacy of racism in this country – genetic discrimination would be another poison leaf on the discrimination tree, and hate-mongers might distort scientific data in order to “prove” the supposed inferiority of one group or another.

There is good news, however; recently IBM became the world’s first major corporation to include genetic profiling in its non-discrimination employment policy.

While this is a positive step in the right direction, a better move would be to simply not test employees at all. Let our most private information remain just that.

Columns reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Northern Star staff.