Report Warns on Human Gene Trials
Paul Recer,
AP Science Writer

4:27 PM EDT; September 18, 2000; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- Attempting to change genes and create future generations of perfect, healthy human beings is dangerous, irresponsible and should not be permitted now, a panel of experts says in a report. A committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a report issued Monday, called for the creation of a public committee to monitor and oversee the increasingly sophisticated research into genetic modification.

Much of the current research is concentrating on modifying the genes to correct health problems in living humans. This is called somatic gene modification and involves changing the genes in existing mature cells. But, the committee said, there is animal research in which there is an alteration of genes that affect future generations. This is called "inheritable genetic modification" (IGM).

Applied to humans, IGM could, in theory, allow the production of "designer children," or babies born with genes modified to make them, and future generations taller, more athletic, more beautiful or more intelligent. IGM could also be used to remove from a family lineage the genes that cause inherited diseases. Dr. Theodore Friedmann of the University of California, San Diego, said that IGM technology now "is not safe for humans." He said experiments have produced animals born with major birth defects, gross physical distortions and fatal abnormalities. The same thing, he said, could happen in humans if the current IGM technology was applied.

Friedmann said reports of gene manipulation and cloning experiments tend to concentrate on the successes. But behind each triumph there can be scores of animals that were born with terrible and usually lethal genetic problems. This, the committee said, shows that the IGM research is not now safe to use on humans. "In animal experiments, this technology has been highly inefficient and not of proven safety," said Friedmann. "There are major technical barriers to using this technology in humans."

Sondra Wheeler, a teacher at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, said permitting IGM research in humans also could be socially disruptive. She said there is the possibility that genetic changes that would produce healthier and improved children would be available only to the wealthy. "This would widen the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' to an unprecedented extent," the report said. "There is a moral problem on the distribution of these benefits," said Wheeler. "Who gets it? Who decides? What criterion do they apply?"

The committee report said a public committee should be organized to monitor and oversee any IGM research on humans. The report called for a public discussion to determine if Americans really want to approve human IGM research. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the world's largest federation of scientists, with more than 146,000 members. The AAAS publishes Science, one of the world's major, peer-reviewed journals of general scientific research.


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Editor's Note: The full 82-page report is available on-line in pdf format for free.