Professor GEORGE J. ANNAS (William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights – Boston University School of Public Health) is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the Institute of Medicine, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Health Rights and Bioethics and a member of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies.
He is also co-founder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, a transnational professional association of lawyers and physicians working together to promote human rights and health.
He has degrees from Harvard College, Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Public Health, where he was a Joseph P. Kennedy Fellow in Medical Ethics.
Prof. Annas has authored and edited over sixteen books on health law and bioethics, some of which are:
American Bioethics: Crossing Human Rights and Health Law Boundaries (2005)
The Rights of Patients (3d ed. 2004),
and his most recent Worst Case Bioethics: Death, Disaster, and Public Health (Oxford U. Press, 2010).
Human, animal life and nature, as our ancestors knew it, and as we know them, surely will have significantly changed by the time the children of our children’s children start taking their first steps on this planet. And unless we begin to be truly aware of the decisions that are taken, why they are taken, who are behind them and with what ultimate purposes they are taken, these changes may be far more terrifying than the plots that our science fiction books and movies could possibly point at.
We are on the highway of genetic manipulation, cloning and molecular biotechnology, to the final destination of the engineering of all life.
Today, genetically engineered seeds are being promoted to farmers, we have already cloned animals and are, in fact, in the early stages of manipulating human embryos in order to design our progeny.
It would be profoundly unfair to say that all our medical, scientific and technical advancements in this area are being pursued for the sake of power, notoriety and financial gain. The fact is that most of our doctors, scientists and engineers chose their specialties and poured their lives into their particular research because they genuinely want to prevent and end human suffering such as disease, physical pain, thirst, hunger, devastation, impediments, desolation, etc.
Still, there are a strong few who love turning these advancements into profit-making schemes, thus tilting the balance dangerously toward destructive tendencies that ultimately affect us all. We are all witness everyday of how easily and rapidly these destructive tendencies spread.
Imagine if the agriculture of all countries belonged to a handful of corporations.
Imagine if racism, classism and discrimination were accented, by wiping out most of our diversity, instead of being finally eradicated.
Imagine if compassion, understanding, tolerance, surprise, discovery, exploration, learning, thrill, all stopped making sense, all disappeared from our dictionaries because they simply no longer applied.
Imagine if, unfortunately, the above didn´t require of imagination, but simple observation.
Crossing a threshold that would forever change life as we know it, that would change many emotions as we know them, that would radically alter the human in us… requires careful, constant and consistent study of in-depth information made available globally and ultimately, a consensus by a vast majority, worldwide.
We have the privilege to interview today a reputed expert in the field of genetic engineering and its health, social and human rights implications, distinguished Professor George J. Annas.
WONDERLANCER: Professor, thank you very much for taking the time to respond to our questions, we are honoured. Would you please share with our readers what your general views are on genetic manipulation and biotechnology with regards to their application to Health?
PROF. GEORGE J. ANNAS: Biotechnology is a worthwhile endeavour to the extent that it can improve the quality of human life and increase healthy lifespan. This should be all of our expectation of the biotechnology project itself. And it should necessarily also be the goal of the major on-going biotechnology projects. Some that merit specific public attention and oversight include the current iteration of the human genome project – the dream of personalized medicine, organ and tissue transplantation, the development of artificial organs and tissues, stem cell research for regenerative medicine, and perhaps most importantly, the development of effective vaccines to prevent disease, especially epidemic diseases like the annual flu and HIV/AIDS, as well as new diseases created in the laboratory for use as bio-weapons.
It has also become well-recognized that as a matter of equity and social justice, it is predictably de-stabilizing for society to foster the creation of new biotechnologies that are only affordable and available to a small percentage of the population. That is because this will inevitably deepen the gap between the rich and the poor in ways that are ultimately unsustainable and are inherently unjust.
WONDERLANCER: What about their application to Agriculture and Food Supply?
PROF. GEORGE J. ANNAS: My own work has been focused on humans, including what kind of a world we are building for ourselves and our children. This includes most relevantly for our discussion what experiments on humans (including, of course, children) are reasonable, and what level of social discussion and approval we should require before human experiments, including genetic experiments, are permitted. Humans have rights and interests, plants and animals don’t. Nonetheless, to the extent that we try out our ideas about what we think might be appropriate to do to humans on animals, anyone concerned with the future of the human species should be concerned with the types of manipulations we permit and even encourage on animals.
For example, cloning (asexual reproduction) has not been (thankfully I think) performed in humans. Nor did anyone seriously propose a human experiment until after Ian Wilmut successfully cloned a mammal, creating Dolly the sheep. Since then we have witnessed the cloning of a variety of animal species, and this has led at least some fringe groups to endorse the cloning of humans. Perhaps we have simply been lucky that there is no real gain in cloning humans (because it can’t create anything better than what already exists, only a genetic duplicate), so that even the biotechnology industry came out strongly against human cloning shortly after Dolly was announced (as did Ian Wilmut himself)
WONDERLANCER: From your knowledge, how far are we into human genetic engineering?
PROF. GEORGE J. ANNAS: We are not terribly far along at all with humans, but as I have already suggested, work is continuing on animals that, if successful, will tempt at least some scientists to try it on humans. We have seen some stunning developments in primates. Japanese investigators reported on the world’s first successful germline modification of a primate, a New World marmoset. They inserted a foreign gene into the marmoset embryo (the gene coding for green florescent protein, or GFP) and produced marmosets that incorporated this gene into some of their tissues. This part had been done before. What was novel is that sperm taken from one of the resulting marmosets was used to create a new embryo, which was gestated by a “surrogate mother” who gave birth to a transgenic marmoset—the first time a transgenically altered primate had been able to produce an offspring that also exhibited an added gene.
A second experiment involved the transfer of the nuclear genetic material from an egg with defective mitochondrial DNA into an egg with healthy mitochondrial DNA, and the subsequent birth of healthy rhesus macaque monkeys with three genetic parents (having genes from the sperm, nucleus of one egg, and mitochondrial DNA from another egg). Predictably perhaps, an accompanying editorial in the issue of Nature in which this research was published suggested serious consideration to applying the technique to humans because “it has the potential to give more couples the chance of having healthy babies.” The editorial also concluded that complete categorical bans on such technologies might simply “impede programs and encourage unethical practices.” These experiments, although not as dramatic as Dolly the sheep in the public’s imagination, afford us an opportunity to re-open the public debate about what limits we should place on human genetic engineering.
WONDERLANCER: What major implications do you think that human genetic engineering would have for the majority of people?
(CONTINUE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH PROF. GEORGE J. ANNAS on Page 2 –below your social sharing tools)