BIO: "Let us rid society of genetic defects, says DNA pioneer"

From: Mark Plus (
Date: Sun Apr 15 2001 - 20:47:01 MDT


Let us rid society of genetic defects, says DNA pioneer
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
16 April 2001
Internal links

Leading article: Genetic research to eliminate disease should not be
prevented by fear
James Watson, the "father" of DNA science, has called for the law to be
changed so that scientists can alter the genes of sperm, eggs and embryos
and so rid genetic defects from future generations.

Dr Watson, who with Francis Crick shared a Nobel prize for the discovery of
the DNA double helix in 1953, says that fears over the creation of "designer
babies" are misplaced and that the potential benefits of controlling the
ultimate engine of human evolution far outweigh the risks.

Altering the genes of sperm, eggs and embryos so-called germ-line gene
therapy is specifically outlawed in Britain, America and many other
countries, ostensibly because of the risks of meddling with genetic material
and introducing possible side-effects that will be passed on to subsequent
generations. There are alsoethical and moral concerns about tinkering with
human DNA to improve a family's genetic stock either by eliminating "bad"
genes or introducing "good" ones. Critics say it raises the spectre of
eugenics, as practised by the Nazis.

Dr Watson, who played a formative role in the human genome project and is
president of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York,
argues passionately in The Independent today for society to review its
opposition to germ-line gene therapy.

"I strongly favour controlling our children's genetic destinies. Working
intelligently and wisely to see that good genes dominate as many lives as
possible is the truly moral way for us to proceed," Dr Watson writes.

Answering those who even oppose the genetic modification of plants and
animals, he says: "To my knowledge, not one illness, much less fatality, has
been caused by a genetically manipulated organism."

Attempts to prevent germ-line gene therapy on humans are reminiscent of the
measures designed to limit the use of DNA manipulation 25 years ago when
scientists agreed to a temporary moratorium on the technology, Dr Watson

"The moral I draw from this painful episode is this: never postpone
experiments that have clearly defined future benefits for fear of dangers
that cannot be quantified," he says.

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