Monday, December 18, 2006

A Gene Story

Michael Crichton, 2006, NEXT (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), HC. 1st Ed.

Michael Crichton is one of my favourite writers and I look forward to each of his new work with anticipation. He is the author of The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Disclosure, Timeline and Eaters of the Dead. All these novels have been filmed as successful movies. Eater of the Dead hit the screens as The Thirteenth Warrior. Michael Crichton was trained as a medical doctor before turning to full time writing. I believe that his medical training has enabled him to research and understand the science involved with good accuracy.

I am always amazed at how he managed to extrapolate the existing database to produce exciting, readable fiction. In each of his novels, he deals with a different discipline of science. Examples are The Andromeda Strain (xenobiology and disease control), Sphere (paranormal psychology), Jurassic Park (cloning) and Timeline (quantum physics). In his latest book, Next, he deals with gene therapy and genetic manipulation.

Like all his previous books, this is an exciting, fast moving thriller. He would expose his characters to innovative technology and develop an exciting story line. Unlike his previous books, Crichton seems to place too much emphasis on the technology itself rather than the characters in Next. There are far too many characters that at times I forget who's who and have to refer backward to find out who the particular character is. Not to spoilt the novel, it is enough to mention that there are bounty hunters, ruthless venture capitalists, greedy, unethical and publicity seeking scientists, innocent lady lawyer, transgenic animals (animals who have human genes) and even a speaking orang utan in Sumatra. [Note to me: Does Sumatra has orang utans?].

What is gratifying to me is that Michael Crichton has taken the same issues that I was concerned about in my own book, Live and Let Live: A Christian Perspective on Biotechnology and build his novel on it. These issues also concern scientists elsewhere who are involved in gene studies or are following its development.

What really surprised me was that at the end of the book, Michael Crichton highlighted 5 points which he was concerned about in his Author’s Note section. And he also provided a long annotated bibliography which is very unusual in a novel.

The five points are really ethical issues about molecular genetic science that we all should be concerned about.

1. Stop patenting genes.
It may sound funny but companies and individuals have been patenting human genes and part of the human bodies. This is allowed under US Patent Law. One can apply for and get a patent for say, ‘anti-aging’ gene. It does not matter whether you have done any research or whether such a gene actually exists. One can do a pre-emptive strive and patent the gene first. Then if anyone else later really discover such a gene, then they have to apply to you for patent right to use the gene. An example is that in the United States, a university discovered the gene that produce pain, named COX-2. They have no plans for it but they decided to patent it. When a pharmaceutical company discovered a drug that inhibit COX-2, the drug became an instant bestseller as it is very effective. The university sued the pharmaceutical company for using their ‘patented gene’. I am happy to note that the university lost the case.

2. Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.
At present there are no clear guidelines about the use of human tissues. When you donate tissue from your body for a scientist to do research upon, do your cells belong to you or to the research institution or the researchers? What happens if someone takes your cells and creates a cell line? A cell-line is a cluster of your cells that can be cultured in the laboratory. Theoretically, such a cell-line can continue to grow indefinitely. Do you have a right to your cell-line? Do you have a right to decide what you want to be done with your cell line? Or the moment the cells leave your body it is no longer yours. Then does the institution to which you donate the cell-line own it? Can they patent it and sell it? If they do patent your cell-line, do they also own you as the source of the cell-line?

3. Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.
Gene therapy is a very new field but researchers are rushing to develop it as it is a gold mine in the next stage of medication treatment. The FDA is coming out with regulations but there have been many reported (or unreported) deaths in gene therapy. This is usually done by private companies which try to cover up. There is a need for transparency in gene therapy research as there are in pharmaceutical research.

4. Avoid bans on research.
Banning research on molecular genetic results only drives it underground and into the hand of private corporations which may not have very strict ethical standards. Bans cannot be enforced. Here I agree with Michael Crichton that “certain research ought not be done, at least not now.” (p.422)

5. Rescind the Boyle-Dole Act.
In 1980, Congress passed a law permitting scientists in public universities to sell their discoveries for their own profit. This opened a floodgate in which results from researches in universities and research institutions which was funded by public money are being patented and allowed to made available commercially. Scientists began their own companies to market their own discoveries. This has reached such a state in the United States, that the line between pure research and commercial ventures has been blurred. Researches are now commercially driven.

Michael Crichton has written an interesting novel on molecular genetic sciences and I would recommend it as a good read. However I am still not sure it is a fiction with science or a non-fiction science book with a story.

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