The end of innocence

Not only are external preventive measures overlooked and avoided, but the focus of genomic research will be put frivolously elsewhere.

The mapping of the human genome is being heralded as the major scientific discovery of the 21st century. As with nuclear power over half a century ago, it is being laden with dreams and promises of a better life for all. Yet, if history and experience is any indication of what may lie in store for us, then these dreams and promises will not only remain unfulfilled, they will be replaced by nagging nightmares and concerns for the future survival of both ourselves and the planet.

Our penetration into the secrets of the human genome in many ways has become the "forbidden fruit" of knowledge. A Third Millennium understanding of this "forbidden fruit" has nothing to do with knowledge in and of itself. Rather, we must differentiate between the acquisition of knowledge (science) and the application of knowledge (technology). Hence, it’s not genomics per se which is at ie, but the application (and exploitation) of this branch of knowledge, namely by corporate and political elites. This not only stands true for knowledge that is generally regarded as "science" (biotechnology, nuclear physics, etc), but other areas as well, such as informatics.

Up until the turn of the Third Millennium, we could say we were still more or less innocent, although our hands have been soiled over the past century and a half through ecological degradation caused by industrial technology and nuclear power. However, now that biotechnology has extended into mastering the complexities of genomics, what little innocence we had left has now been dashed. Unfortunately, we are still not mature enough to accept responsibility for our actions. Even more so, corporate and political elites are increasingly unwilling to be held accountable for what they do.

Admittedly, corporate mass media has covered some of the ethical concerns associated with our increased knowledge of the human genome and subsequent possible gene manipulation. The use of genetic information to discriminate amongst individuals and the cloning of humans raises real concerns in areas such as employment, insurance, and privacy, to name just a few. The "brave new world" of Aldous Huxley, coupled with Orwell’s scenario of an all encompassing telescreen, looks to be one step closer to reality.

Yet the focus on some of these obvious ethical concerns has, in many ways, taken the impetus away from closer scrutiny into the dangers involved. At the same time, most of these reports present ethical concerns in such a way as to have them overshadowed and outweighed by the potential benefits of genome technology. Among these benefits is the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

In Hungary, news of the breakthrough in mapping the human genome was greeted with much optimism, so much so that the potential negative effects raised elsewhere was scarcely mentioned. Ambitious predictions were made that within 5 years or so we will already have a treatment for cancer. Meanwhile, some of the more patriotic media outlets couldn’t help but to claim a Hungarian was at the root of the discovery. This was with reference to Gabor Gyapay who, working in France, developed ideas over a decade ago into the use of genetic manipulation in the treatment of certain diseases. Gyapay now joins the ranks of other Hungarians who are seen as the driving force behind our brave new world, such as John von Neumann, commonly regarded by Hungarians as the "father of computer technology".

Patriotism aside, the promise that we will soon be able to predict and cure various diseases like cancer is of great consequence for a country like Hungary. It has one of the worst life expectancy rates for men in the world, in where only 50% of males between the ages of 30 and 60 will ever make it to retirement. In general, the population at large can be said to be not in a very healthy state. Genomics, therefore, holds a measure of hope that such trends can be quickly and cheaply reversed.

It is this way of thinking, which is not unique to Hungary, that lies at the heart of the problem. Thanks to the subtle influences of corporate mass media, we are being made to put our faith into technology to cure our woes when, in fact, simple prevention can help us overcome many of the challenges we presently face.

Without doubt, life as we still know it is very much a genetic lottery. One child in 2,500 is autistic. In Europe, 1% of the population will suffer from schizophrenia at one point or another in their lives, while 5% of the population over 65 will suffer from Alzheimer disease. Researchers have thus used genomics to try and understand these sicknesses.

However, far too often the root cause of these and other ailments, while they may be genetically based, is not merely due to chance. Indeed, the odds behind the genetic lottery have been frequently changed thanks to rampant industrialism. A case in point is with cancer.

In the US, one in two American men and one in three American women will get cancer; 50 years ago, only one in four Americans were afflicted with this deadly disease. Despite spending billions of dollars on cancer research, cancer rates have soared thanks to industrial carcinogens that permeate the environment — in food, air, water, and consumer products.

In his book "The Politics of Cancer Revisited" (East Ridge Press, Fremont Center, New York, 1998), Dr. Samuel Epstein maintains that with a comprehensive program of prevention — which includes "external" prevention (i.e., environmental and social factors) — cancer rates can be driven back down to the relatively low rates of the 1950s.

Despite this, billions of dollars are being spent worldwide on the elusive search for a magic, quick cure for cancer. At the same time, preventive measures exclusively focus on "internal" prevention only. Every couple of months or so corporate mass media run a story about a supposed "breakthrough" in cancer treatment. While these stories raise the hopes of cancer victims worldwide, they rarely end up fulfilling expectations. As Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman noted in Focus on the Corporation, "this emphasis on a corporate cure fits well with the megacorporate agenda of externalizing toxics to increase profits, thus riddling the population with higher cancer rates and needless suffering."

Unfortunately, this framework permeates all aspects of medical research. And so it is the same with genomics. While we may make advances in fighting the "big killers" by identifying the genes involved in diabetes, applying genetic therapy for cardio-vascular diseases, controlling metastases in cancer patients, or doing a clinical follow-up on AIDS patients, many of the external causes of disease — over which we have a measure of control — are being overlooked and avoided.

This, of course, defeats the ultimate purpose of tackling "the big killers". It will matter little if, thanks to genomic research, it can be determined ahead of time what kind of disease a person may or may not be susceptible to. Many cancer patients, for instance, fall victim to the disease later in life, either due to an occupational hazard or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When they realise they have become sick, it’s often then too late.

Another example of this futility is with diabetes. In the vast majority of non-insulin dependent diabetes cases the genes involved don’t actually cause the illness but, rather, predispose a particular individual to developing it in interaction with what are known as "environmental risk factors", such as age, nutrition, weight, or lack of physical activity. To use the jargon of experts, non-insulin dependent diabetes is a multigenic and polyfactoral disease.

What is worrying is that not only are external preventive measures overlooked and avoided, but the focus of genomic research will, no doubt, be put frivolously elsewhere. In some cases, it will be used to chase illusory sicknesses, such as those with weight problems.

Already, in the US, there has been much work done to isolate the "fat gene". In doing so, Americans are conveniently avoiding the root causes as to why they are overweight, namely, an unhealthy lifestyle based on over-consumption and little exercise. Subsequently, those who actually suffer from hyperobesity as a medical condition are belittled. What is more, as various genetically-based treatments become available, people will be encouraged to be careless with their health and over-consume, knowing that there will be some kind of cure available later when they get into trouble.

The future direction of genomic research, therefore, will end up going to where the money is. "Techno-health" has now become the order of the day, in where we obtain good health through technologically-based cures (which cost money) as opposed to preventive measures and a healthy lifestyle (which is more or less free).

For the pharmaceutical industry especially, the future of genomic research will mean big business. Not only will they be able to focus research on money-making cures, but the cost of treatment will be kept artificially high due to patents and other such methods. This, in turn, will have a detrimental effect on the poor. Already, we can see the results of this with AIDS, in which the spread of the disease has been limited within industrial nations but in places like Africa it runs rampant.

Because of all this, the benefits of genomic research will end up being restricted to a fortunate few. The human condition will actually worsen on global scale, while the western world will permit itself the illusion that things have gotten better. The signs of such "doublethink" are apparent: in the first half of this year, 13 million people have been killed by infectious, preventable diseases. All of these deaths occurred in the Third World, and could have been avoided with a minimal amount of effort.

Our knowledge of the human genome will not make life better for all, but only for those who can pay. In many ways, the genetic lottery will still exist, only in a different way: no longer will it be a question of which genes you are born with, but which country, ethnic group, and even social class you happened to belong.

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