Midway through the first year of the new millennium, the human genetic code has just been deciphered - a remarkable achievement on many levels. We've finally uncovered the elusive map purported to guide us to cure the diseases that plaque mankind ... or did we?
The question is intriguing.
Actually there are several unanswered questions. Is this really a giant step for mankind that will lead to increased longevity and quality of life? Does DNA sequencing provide key insights into a territory we can explore, or is it rather a map of the distant galaxies we are never likely to travel? Have we advanced ourselves closer to understanding the secrets of life itself, or did we just blow the lid off Pandora’s box?
It's time to begin to understand what this discovery really means. Yes we do have the roadmap, but is the road accessible? What we need now is a perspective for what lies ahead.
While it is true that mammals have already been successfully cloned, one should not assume that reengineering human chromosomes to cure diseases is just a mere step ahead. Despite landing men on the moon and sending probes to planets in our solar system, manned exploration of distant galaxies is still no more than science fiction.
Let's assume for a moment we have a detailed map of a distant galaxy. We’ve painstakingly plotted its suns, moons and planets. There's just one problem we have to contend with - even if we could travel at the speed of light, it would take a thousand years to get there. So while it’s nice to see that galaxy through the lens of a magnificent telescope, with the knowledge and insights we've accumulated to date, can we do more than dream?
From a similar perspective, despite the fact that more than 10 years ago scientists uncovered the single gene responsible for Cystic Fibrosis, we still do not have a cure.
Getting to our DNA and altering a chromosome’s precise sequence are enormously challenging tasks. Viral messengers that carry DNA fragments aren't as reliable as pizza delivery boys. One cannot ignore the fact that the consequences of an error are far more reaching than simply ringing the wrong doorbell or substituting anchovies for onions and green peppers.
It is also far too simplistic to view disease in terms of genetic predisposition alone. Spontaneous alterations occur in our genetic maps each day. Of the 8 billion daily cell divisions, some go awry. Sometimes such errors lead to cancer. It would be foolish to disregard the fact that the very fabric of our genetic makeup is in an ongoing state of flux.
It's also important to realize that mapping the human genome was not necessary for the stem cell research that presently enables scientists to grow specific cell lines. Human proteins in cows already produce critical supplies of clotting factors for Hemophiliacs throughout the world. In simple terms, all genetic advances do not require the deciphering of this template in the same way that building a house is not dependent upon understanding the molecular makeup of wood.
One should also not assume that even a theoretically perfect genetic code would not be severely impacted by the lifestyle choices we make. Gene sequencing is a far cry from invulnerability. Diet, exercise, and coping strategies play a significant role in disease prevention and health promotion. If you don't change the oil in your sleek new red sports car, it's not going to last. And if you choose to avoid your scheduled maintenance visits, you might as well ride the bus.
So what can we expect in the near future?
I'm convinced that a great deal of information has to be assimilated before we see major advances stemming from mapping the human genome. We will need to learn how a change in one chromosome region affects its neighbors. We will also have to explore the potential far-reaching impact of rearranging DNA sequences from scientific, moral and ethical vantage points. The process of manipulating the human genome will certainly spur enormous challenges that will test our souls.
In conclusion, while I salute this scientific accomplishment, I'm still concerned about what lies buried inside Pandora’s box. Are we tampering with the very fabric of life, or are we using our God-given abilities and our assimilation of knowledge to benefit mankind? Only time will tell -- Mind Over Matter!
© 2000 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved