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Human Genome Project must be approached carefully by scientists

By The Wildcat Opinions Board
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
June 28, 2000
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Earlier this week world leaders and scientists claimed victory in the deciphering of the human genome. In a press conference Monday morning on CNN, President Bill Clinton joined British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the director of the National Human Geno me Research Institute, Dr. Francis Collins, to address the world. They flooded the airwaves with adjectives of achievement and promises of future accomplishments that cleverly sidestepped the shortcomings hidden under grandiose claims of success.

The human genome, the decisive makeup of our DNA, has been the prize in a decade-long race forged by scientists and private-venture companies eager to attain the correct genetic spelling of "human."

Unfortunately the possible benefits assured by such a map could be so blinding that the results may be more harmful than beneficial if the proper steps are not taken.

After words like "completed" and "heroic effort" finished bouncing off the walls, the small fact that only 97 percent of the sequencing and 85 percent of the mapping was completed quietly remained. There is a long road ahead.

With Clinton, Blair and Collins all making pledges to the "redoubling of efforts" and "going full steam ahead" in one sentence and promising caution and care in the next, observers would be hard pressed not to come away with a mixed message. The motto of Celera Genomics, the private company that helped complete the research, is "speed matters - discovery can't wait."

But discovery comes at what cost? If any discipline is seen as patient and adherent to a consistent method, it is science. As Clinton touched on, this is a time for serious contemplation of the legal, social, ethical and moral ramifications created by th is powerful information.

While there is no universal human genome and we are all unique in our own makeup, a skeleton code that is common to us all can be mapped and used for comparison. With the discovery of a model for our genetic code comes a double-edged sword. A model used t o save lives before they are threatened. A model used to treat illness. A model to be used to find defects. A model used to discriminate.

The utilization of an individual's genetic code for the benefit of personal health is one thing. The information from others' gentic codes possibly being used by employers and insurance companies is another. Insurance companies could save hundreds of mil lions of dollars by not providing policies to those people who possess dangerous genes. With 44.5 million Americans already lacking insurance, do we really need to contribute to the problem?

While a majority of people - 67 percent - in a recent CNN poll said their doctors should be able to access their genetic information, only a small minority wanted their insurance companies to be in the loop. With the current coupling of insurance companie s and doctors - HMO's - the line between the two becomes fainter. With this blurred line comes a greater availability for information that could be potentially harmful to the individual. Gene prejudice would then join the ranks of our other social vices o f racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination.

Not to be overcome with pessimism, this is a breakthrough in the most promising and compelling fields of our time. We are no longer an illiterate species. With this genetic achievement comes the ability to read our own genetic names. Now we must not only practice our reading but our comprehension skills as well.

The political and scientific community has delivered its end of the bargain. It is now up to the public, as well as our elected officials, to manage this challenge.

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