Hal Weinberg, PhD
I April of 04 Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and, Science World and several commercial interests sponsored a forum on Biotechnology, Ethics and the Future. It was called Conscience and Science. An interesting part of this forum was the contribution of two students who debated the use of pharmaceuticals to modify and control behaviour – one in favour and one against.
The fast changing world of Biotechnology is impacting on our society is ways that will make our lives very different in the almost immediate future and certainly in the next generation. For those of us who have children those children will be very different people than they would have been without the inevitable influence of projected advances in biotechnology.
There are important questions today about what we want for the future but in dealing with these we are always in the difficulty that our opinions are limited by the existing technology and our experience –limitations about what we know today – tomorrow our opinions may change because tomorrow we will be encountering what we can only predict today – and tomorrow we may like it, or tomorrow we may not like it, or perhaps what we like tomorrow will be determined by the technology itself.
The issue of course is what we allow to happen today and what type of control, if we decide to control the use of knowledge. History tells us that there is no way to suppress, nor should we try to suppress, the development of new knowledge. The question really is what constitutes new knowledge how we deal with that knowledge – can access to that knowledge be restricted. Can that new knowledge be privatized? Is new knowledge similar to an invention, or to music, or a novel and if that knowledge and be patented. Is knowledge about an individual owned by the individual or by who discovered it, like the unique genome configuration of that person the very physiology of that person that makes him or her an individual? Is protection of the individual subservient to protection of the society and if so when – should we move toward robotisizing individuals using biotechnology in order to ensure peace and stability of our civilization?
How do we go about answering these questions? I think there has to be a better approach than simply relying on religious principles to define our ethics. Relying on religion has not worked in the past 2000 years – in fact it could be argued that the conflicts and hostilities we have seen for the past 2000 years has been propagated by religious beliefs that require the compliance of everyone, and justify any thing in order to ensure that compliance.
My own opinion is that we should all start off with only one ethical concept – that anyone can think what they want - but they cannot kill anyone or destroy anyone in order to force them into thinking the same.
Therefore, the question is how and to what extent do we regulate the use of knowledge but not the discovery or acquisition of knowledge.
However, this is not as simple as it sounds and some of the issues in Biotechnology highlight the complexity of this solution. One thing that could be considered is to apply the principles of democracy to the ways in which regulation is determined – and implemented.
Sir John Sulston, a Nobel Laureate, was invited to the Forum on Conscience and Science and he talked about the current controversy surrounding the patenting of genome sequences in plants and humans. Recently, and in the Forum, he asked a very important question – can basic information about genome configurations, discovered by scientists, for themselves or for a company, be privatized through patents? For example, if one were to discover the way in which genetic engineering could prolong life, or prevent disabilities in children, or cure Alzheimer’s disease, or Multiple Sclerosis, or Parkinson’s Disease are those discoveries private? The argument for privatization of these discoveries is that they are the result of private research and that they are discoveries in the same sense that drug configurations for the cure of diseases like HIV-Aids, or other diseases. I agree with John Sulston that there cannot be the privatization of fundamental knowledge and discoveries like the cure for HIV-Aids need to be, must be, available to all. Lets take, for example, the discovery by Einstein of E=MC2 when 1905 if first wrote that famous equation that made one of most significant changes to the human society, or the discovery of Watson and Crick of the DNA structure in 1953. It would be incredible to think that these discoveries could be patented so that anyone using them would have to get someone’s permission to use or to pay a royalty. The ways in which these discoveries can be used might be patented and regulated depending on their use and it is the type of use that should be taken into account in patent laws. If private companies do not want to do the basic research that will lead to these discoveries then the public system should ensure there is sufficient funding in universities and other research institutions.
Another participant, Maureen McTeer spoke eloquently about the impact of current policy in the Canada and other countries with respect to the use of patents to establish ownership of discoveries. She pointed out that patents are supposed to be tools to protect the ownership of inventions. The Canadian Patent Act defines an “invention” as any new and useful art, process, machine or composition of matter, or any new (not previously disclosed or known to the public) and useful improvement in any art, process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter. The act specifically excludes the discovery of a new plant or animal found in the wild, new minerals discovered in the earth, Computer programs; Speculations; methods of medical treatment for humans or animals, methods of using medicine or similar substances to diagnose, prevent or cure ailments in animals or humans, and more generally anything with a medical benefit, and of particular importance, new scientific principles. Ms McTeer pointed out that the first genes patented was in the late 1970s, those of insulin and the growth hormone. Others followed, and micro-organisms containing human insulin or growth hormone genes were also patented. Almost unnoticed by those who signed the Budapest Convention, was that the line of non-patentability of living organisms had been crossed.She pointed out that later, in1980 the US Supreme Court made the practice of patenting life forms legal by deciding that a genetically engineered unicellular organism that “ate” oil spills was a patentable manufacture or composition of matter. However, at this point the Candian government refused to follow the lead of the Americans in the patenting of human life forms. Then along came the Harvard mouse case.
The Harvard Mouse case arose from a patent application filed June 21, 1985 for a transgenic mouse whose genome was genetically altered by a cancer-promoting gene. The altered mice were more susceptible to carcinogens and could be used for carcinogenic studies. The claim for patent read: “A transgenic non-human mammal whose germ cells and somatic cells contain an activated oncogene sequence introduced into said mammal, or an ancestor of said mammal, at an embryonic stage." The claims to the mouse were rejected by the Commissioner of Patents and Patent Appeal Board as being outside of the definition of an invention. This decision was upheld by the Federal Court Trial Division, but reversed on appeal. This went to the Supreme Court of Canada on June 14, 2001 who decided by majority that The sole question before the Supreme Court of Canada was whether the oncogenic mouse was a “manufacture” or “composition of matter” so as to fall within the definition of an invention under section 2 of the Canadian Patent Act. The Court decided that it did not. Justice Bastarache concluded that the patenting of higher life forms raises serious practical, ethical and environmental concerns, which are highly complex and beyond the scope of the judiciary – meaning that the issue needs to be resolved by Parliament. This is an interesting example of when the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that it was not their role to establish laws but determine when proposals are within laws that are established by Parliament. It is clear that patent legislation should be reviewed periodically to make it consistent with the way in which new discoveries can impact on the basic substance and character of our society.
David Suzuki discussed a question: Biotechnology: Is it Panacea or is it just Hype? Dr Suzuki is known as an environmental activist but actually started as a geneticist. His whole family was Canadian born. In the initial stages of World 2 he and his family were incarcerated in an internment camp, their home and property was confiscated because they had Japanese genes. Dr. Suzuki described how genetic characterizations of individuals were at the heart of the so-called science of eugenics and in many cases was the justification of horrible periods in the history of our species. In 1977 he raised the question he raised is whether biotechnology is now on the precipice of a new period in which significant mistakes can be made in understanding the social and ethical implications of new biotechnologies and the impact of them on the very nature and characterization of our species. An example is was the ability to make combinations of DNA molecules from diverse species and to test those molecules in living cells – called recombinant DNA. “Today products of biotechnology are being rammed into our food, onto our fields and into our medicines, without any public participation in discussions and with the complicity, indeed, the active support and funding of governments. But there are profound health, ecological and economic ramifications of this activity. At the heart of biotechnology is the ability to manipulate the very blueprint of life, removing and inserting segments into diverse species for specified ends. While plant and animal breeding over the past ten millennia have built the agriculture we depend on, biotechnology takes us far beyond the crude techniques of breed and select. It behooves us therefore to examine the underpinnings of the claims, potential and limits of this young field.” Science is a process of discovery - and to a large extent it is always in the business of trying to prove and disprove hypotheses and theories. This fundamentally means that at any one time there is uncertainty about the implications and consequences of current discoveries. When the possible implications could have tremendous and very long term and long-reaching consequences it is important to really know what is going to happen. One example he used was DDT a molecule that kills insects was synthesized in the by Paul Mueller in the 1930s. He got the Nobel Prize for that discovery. Suzuki pointed out that “ The power of chemistry to control a scourge that had plagued humankind since the beginning of time was trumpeted widely. At the time Mueller made his discovery, geneticists knew enough to have suggested that using an insecticide would simply select resistant mutants that would eventually replace the sensitive strains and thereby set farmers onto a treadmill of requiring an endless string of different pesticides. Ecologists of that time could have suggested that of all animals in the world, insects are the most numerous and diverse, and play critical ecological roles like pollination, predation, and feeding other species. Perhaps one or two insect species per thousand species are pests to human beings. Using a broad spectrum insecticide to get at the one or two species that are a nuisance to humans seems analogous to killing everyone in a city to control crime.” I think the bottom line of what Suzuki was trying to say is this: The very fact that biotechnology is in the process of discovery means that the consequences of discovery are unpredictable. We have to proceed with caution and an understanding of how to support discovery and not be pushed into what could be disastrous circumstances by commercial steamrollers that have only profit in mind, He argued that many of the programmes of research at universities, the primary place of discoveries in biotenchnology, are funded by commercial enterprise, that research in universities have become subservient to the business of making money. The consequences of this could be disastrous for our species, for all species, and we must proceed with extreme caution - a concept was emphasized by almost all contributors to the Forum. What would actually be the “Genetic Ideal” Arthur Kroker asked? Would it be no viruses, no germs, and no defects? And how would one decide now on what are the defects of the species? What would happen to the species if we did not die and are we as a society prepared for that change? Kroker argued that in fact we are becoming the first species to engineer the end of their own species, which is a complete contradiction of the whole concept of evolution. The question that keeps arising is whether we are into another phase of Eugenics. Are we into the process of deciding what are the best genes for the species to have and how can we get rid of those we do not like.
Of course we are asking these questions from the perspective of today. If in fact changes were made, if Eugenics reigned, then the objects of those changes, ourselves, would be asking the question about what was a good change or a bad change from a different perspective, the perspective of the future. Since in the future we will have been modified to accept the changes there will be no one to ask whether those changes are good, or bad since we will be asking those questions from the perspective of a species that has already been changed, and changed in a way to accept what has happened. This is the finality that worries everyone. How do we know what the consequences will be of our ability to manipulate the very character and survival of our species – or for that matter any species.
Contributors to the forum were Sir John Sulston, PhD, Nobel laureate and author, Wellcome Trust, Senator Wilbert Keon, OC, MD, FRCS (C), Member, Social Affairs,Science and Technology Committee, David Suzuki, PhD, Emeritus Professor, Chair, David Suzuki Foundation, Arthur Kroker, PhD, Canadian Research Chair, University of Victoria, Sam Abraham, PhD, Director, Technology Development, BC Cancer Agency, Donald L. Riddle, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, Genome BC, Barry Beyerstein, PhD, Professor, Psychology, Simon Fraser University, Ms. Clara Westwell-Roper, Student Panelist, Mr. Shakir Rahim, Student Panelist, Maureen McTeer, MA, LLB, LLM (Health); Barrister and Solicitor: Reproductive and genetic technologies; Public Policy Consultant., Eugene Oscapella, LLB, LLM, Barrister and Solicitor: Public Privacy and Public Policy Consultant, David Bollier, Senior Fellow, Norman Lear Centre for Communications, USC, Barbara McGillivray, MD, FRCS(C)Professor, Medical Genetics, UBC; Hal Weinberg, PhD , Emeritus Professor, Simon Fraser University, Director, Office of Research Ethics.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policy or the views of Simon Fraser University.