Code of misconduct

The human genome may not solve all our problems. One of the most far-reaching consequences of the decoding is the ability to predict people's susceptibility to particular diseases. Experts question the use of such a power. Will employers harness the data to block jobs for those with a less favourable genetic inheritance?

 
By Ritu Gupta
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: EMKAY)fifty years ago, on February 28, 1953, two young men walked into the Eagle, a dingy pub in Cambridge, and announced that they had discovered the secret of life. James D Watson and Francis Crick had found that the dna was the key to evolution. Like many others, Crick's wife, Odile did not believe them. But the claim was true, and the discovery set in motion a revolution that has continued to unfold to date, despite the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium completing the decoding of the human genome on April 14, 2003 -- two years ahead of schedule.

Better treatments for cancer and other intractable maladies are now on the anvil. But there are outright dangers too: dna techniques can be used to make biological weapons. With the us department of energy heading the consortium, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of dna's double helix may be more than just a round number.

One of the most far-reaching consequences of the decoding is the ability to predict people's susceptibility to particular diseases. Experts question the use of such a power. Will employers harness the data to block jobs for those with a less favourable genetic inheritance? What about the influence of our diet, living conditions or the stress levels? Will scientists still need to look at the environment to explain our health and behaviour? The temptation for insurance underwriters to use genetic data to raise or lower premiums has also been a major concern.

Science administrators in the us (and their counterparts in other nations) supported the genome project not only because of its medical benefits; they saw it as a tool for the creation of jobs and wealth. In 1994, sales of the us biotechnology industry (1,272 companies) amounted to us $7 billion, but in 1999 the industry (1,283 companies) fetched us $13 billion for the nation's economy.

Deriving pharmaceuticals from the genome is far from straightforward, but there are plenty of companies trying. Industry giants like Smithkline Beecham, Eli Lilly and Glaxo Wellcome are all there. The genome is definitely a money-spinner for firms that will interpret the genome data. Craig Venter's Celera Genomics -- the most prominent of these companies -- recently raised us $1 billion in just a day on the New York Stock Exchange.

Are these companies all set to help the developing world? The promise that genetic research holds for combating diseases may not include ailments that plague the poor countries. Even if this happens, the drugs would be prohibitively expensive. The existing health gap between rich and poor is bound to widen. One crucial area where more knowledge of the genome can benefit the developing world is in understanding why some populations are more, or less susceptible to some diseases. For example, the commonly used vaccine for tuberculosis is effective in the uk, but unsuccessful in Malawi. To find an explanation for such a difference, it is vital for developing countries to have full access to the sequence. As per the press release of the consortium, the entire sequence has been made freely available to scientists worldwide.

But there is a catch. It is the raw sequence that is available. Analysed data -- the basis of any research -- is behind closed doors. "A broad analysis could be released in the future. But before this, we need to avoid the controversies about patents," says Francis Collins, head of the us-based National Human Genome Research Institute.

The wait might be a long one. The recent past has witnessed several disputes over patents for gene sequences. Nine years ago, the University of California accused us-based Genentech of infringing a patent held by the university for a dna sequence of a human growth hormone. The case was settled after three trips to the us Supreme Court, 1,000 days of deposition and a mistrial. Genentech had to pay the university us $200 million -- the largest settlement in the field of biotechnology patents.

Experts say that developing countries would not be able to afford such costs. Therefore, patents would restrict the flow of information. The science of genomics may be well established but the science of equality is still in its infancy. There is still a long road to travel.

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