Network: All in the genes

My Technology
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IN THE near future, people will wear specs with clear glass because it is the fashion, and my mild problem of not being able to read without specs will be very old-fashioned. Genetic engineering could put my eyes back the way they were, and I wouldn't need specs at all.

My failing eyesight is the one really frustrating thing about getting older. My half-specs can ease this problem; the lens are made for close objects, so I can now glance up from the lens and avoid blurred vision when looking in the distance. But I must contend with a deep-seated psychological fear that they make me look like Jeffrey Archer. I can't go shopping without my specs, or look at a map. And it is really frustrating that I can chat to my children, but not see the banknotes I am counting out for them (I always fetch my specs, rather than find myself handing out pounds 20 notes.)

Genetic engineering will be the great revolution of the near future. And we shall find it irresistible. First, it will be used in relation to illnesses such as haemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and any illnesses that can kill children. Add to that list problems that cause great distress later in life, such as Alzheimer's disease.

A question worth asking these days is whether we shall be able to correct genetic effects of ageing. Will doctors be able to scrape my cheek, tidy it up, or flood my system with a gene that will improve my eyesight. Very intriguing. It's not a Frankenstein scenario. Fear comes from the unknown, and I imagine that genetic engineering will be the same as most developments - once it becomes familiar, the general attitude will shift towards acceptance. Newspaper headlines will be about marvellous transformations of children made healthy via genetic treatment.

It is always worth remembering, - and especially with a provocative subject such as this - that one person's monstrosity is another person's miracle. Where I am totally convinced that we need to watch the development of this science is the areas of supervision and control. There are quite good controls for plant engineering, and also for people, but it is not taken far enough yet. For instance, embryology can be carried out up to 14 days after conception. Fine. But the kind of research they are doing during that time is what really needs to be examined. Look at what has happened in the animal field. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, it was a great surprise. Why? No one knew that this work was under way. It makes your hair stand on end to think that the original research was funded by the Milk Marketing Board. Why? They were looking for a better cow.

In my most recent book, The Ambassadors, a few Marilyn Monroes are cloned via her gall bladder. It's meant to raise all sorts of questions; identity, identification, the law and so on. I ask, but the novel won't give answers - although I am sure we shall have to find answers soon. I found it quite alarming that there is very little literature on the subject. Of course, the sci-fi people have tackled these issues for years, but in terms of mainstream work, the only works that stand out are Fay Weldon's The Cloning of Joanna May, and a rather lovely book by Danielle Steele called Klone and I, about a successful businessman who clones himself to keep his girlfriend happy when he is not there. Unfortunately for the businessman, the clone is more interesting, and she falls in love with it, which points out that no one is ever identical.

I was struck by how these stories were all based on the idea of a megalomaniac individual, with the science used for their own, selfish purpose. No, I thought, that isn't how it is going to happen. It will be on a much broader scale. It is like vaccination. When I was a Health Minister, I was encouraging everybody to vaccinate their children. It wasn't compulsory, but it was in the public interest. Similarly, this is how it shall be with genetic engineering - if you want to use it, that's OK, and if you don't, that's also OK. But if you come from a family where there is a problem - and most of us do - then you will be encouraged to use genetic engineering. And it will be available on the NHS. Just watch.

Interview by Jennifer Rodger