Engineering mankind’s future

IMAGINE a future where a father can ensure his son has a large penis, or where a mother could guarantee that her daughter will have “perfect” breasts.

Or worse still a mad scientist breeding an army of genetic mutants to wipe out the human race.

But then, take a step back, and contemplate a world free of horrible inherited diseases, like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s.

The debate swirling around human genetic engineering is an ethical maelstrom, where religion, science and humanity collide in deafening claps of thunder.

In 2015 a group at Sun Yat-sen University in China reported they had created the first genetically-modified human embryo, altering mutant DNA that created the human disease β-thalassemia, which is life-threatening and affects 100,000 people worldwide.

• A Hitler clone (above) and Dr Josef Mengele (below) in the film The Boys from Brazil.

The news sent an ethical shudder across the world, with commentators concerned about  the use of embryos for scientific research, and the prospect of the technology eventually being used to create designer babies.

Genetically modifying DNA to further eugenics—where the human population is improved by increasing “desirable” heritable characteristics—has captured filmmakers’ imaginations.

In the spine-chilling 1978 film The Boys from Brazil, Dr Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor, flees to Paraguay after WWII and hatches a plan to create a master race by fertilising woman with a sample of Hitler’s DNA.

Ninety-four clones of Hitler are then born and sent to different parts of the world for adoption.

And in the 1997 film Gattaca, Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is conceived outside the eugenics program and struggles to overcome genetic discrimination to realise his dream of traveling into space.

A free screening of Gattaca during Science Week will be followed by a “spirited” debate on the future of genetic science with commentators from ethics, science and the creative arts, including Dr Jacqueline Savard from Sydney University’s Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine.

“Gattaca is a great example of how this complexity challenges the simplistic idea that our genes are our destiny,” Dr Savard says.

“The society in which the film is based believes genes determine who and what you are meant to become.

“The story of the main character Vincent is the antithesis to this idea.  Not only does he challenge and con the system, he succeeds and defies the odds—his genetic odds, to become what everyone told him he would never be.”

At the time of Gattaca’s release, the human genome project was still ongoing, and a battle between public and private interests and who had the right to patent genes was at its height.

Dr Savard says that tussle is still ongoing, but the genome debate has moved on.

“People are aware that genetics is only part of the story,” she says.

• The film Gattaca examined genetic engineering and eugenics.

“They actively acknowledge and understand that the environment, how we each respond to and adapt to challenges and even historical impacts from previous generations will all contribute to who we are.

“The complexity in our world means we should move beyond simplistic ideas that our genetics determines everything.”

In Australia, research performed on human embryos is tightly regulated by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which also prohibits human cloning. But with the emergence of new biotechnoligies—including non-invasive prenatal testing, consumer genetic tests that can be purchased on the Internet, the increasing availability of whole genome sequencing and newer technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9 (the ability to edit the genome)—the debate on human genetic engineering is set to rage on.

“Before we leap into the future where we might seek to alter and control our genetics, it is worthwhile to first talk about why we want this ability and what we think it could or should be done with it,” Dr Savard says.

Genomics and the science of Gattaca is at the WA State Library on August 12 at 6pm.

To find out more about national science week visit http://www.scienceweek.net.au/wa/

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