Gods who are selling our genes: Tom Wilkie on the dangers of an obsessive and commercial scramble for knowledge

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IT IS all there in Birmingham this week: scientific talent, youth and money. And the subject of discussion is one that has been in the shadows for almost half a century: genetics.

The 17th International Congress of Genetics has attracted more than 4,000 geneticists. They have taken over the city's International Convention Centre and booked out the surrounding hotels. The audiences for some of the lectures have filled the new Symphony Hall, while in the hi-tech atrium and on the elevated walkways, earnest rice geneticists from the Indian subcontinent discuss the arcana of genetic polymorphism with heavy-set plaid-coated men from the American Midwest.

Journalists and other strangers shouldering their way through the crowds might forget that for every one attending the conference, there must be 10 geneticists left behind minding the laboratory. Geneticists are in the business of breeding - and they are.

The scientific conference business is not cheap. Those attending had to pay pounds 315 each for the privilege, while the hotels ranged from pounds 105 a night (without breakfast) to just pounds 23.50 a night for those who could not aspire higher than the university halls of residence.

But there is money in genetics. More than any other branch of modern science, the practitioners have gone out into the marketplace and sold their skills to the financial investment houses. Those who made the ground-breaking discoveries in the early Seventies set the tone and the pattern: not only did they walk off with Nobel Prizes, they turned themselves into start-up biotech companies and became dollar millionaires overnight as the stock market rushed to invest.

Several of those speaking in Birmingham this week hold academic appointments in universities or hospitals while actively pursuing commercial applications as directors or consultants to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. They do not seem to be worried about conflict of interest; or concerned that, in effect, the human genetic inheritance is being parcelled up and sold off as private property.

One speaker appeared not to notice the incongruity between declaiming to the conference that the human gene pool was the common property of all mankind - a common refrain - and the fact that he had set up his own company to exploit genetic discoveries.

And yet, as the American gene therapist French Anderson reminded those attending the conference, for all the money, effort and scientific genius which has gone into modern molecular genetics, there has been very little pay-off so far in terms of alleviating human suffering.

The first successful gene therapy treatments concerned two little girls in the US suffering from a very rare inherited defect of the immune system. The disease is so rare that there were probably no other sufferers in the US who could have benefited from the treatment. A couple of other children suffering from the same rare ailment - one of them British - have been treated elsewhere.

As a result of other genetic discoveries, some women who risk bearing children with cystic fibrosis have been offered advanced diagnosis and the option of aborting an affected foetus. And that is it.

Perhaps it is too early to expect promises to be realised. Yet those promises have been extravagant. In 1988 Robert Sinsheimer, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, said simply that genes are what 'defines a human being'. In 1989 James Watson, the discoverer of the double helix of DNA, was quoted in Time as saying: 'We used to think our fate was in our stars. Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes.'

Such claims, of course, help to ensure that money, whether from the public purse or private funds, continues to flow to finance the research. Others, most notably this week the British plant geneticist Sir Ralph Riley, who is president of the Birmingham conference, have been more guarded, warning of the dangers of political misuse of the geneticists' findings. With the fearful history of this century's abuse of genetics - not just in Nazi Germany but also in the sterilisation of thousands of the 'feeble minded' in the democratically governed US - the organisers have gone out of their way to encourage 'public awareness'.

In addition to technical sessions comprehensible only to a few fellow specialists there are more accessible lectures every evening. The whole of Saturday is given over to examining the darkness of the past and the lessons that can be learnt to avoid its repetition.

Yet geneticists are caught in an inescapable trap. All scientists pursue their subjects out of a sense of intrinsic interest. But most, and especially the geneticists, also believe that their work has an extrinsic value: medical genetics will alleviate human suffering; plant genetics will usher in a second green revolution to feed the starving. They do not believe those philosophers of science who say that scientific knowledge is inherently value-neutral; on the contrary, the geneticists know that their work is beneficial - it were not, they would not be doing it.

And that is the catch. The Birmingham conference is encouraging public discussion of geneticists' work. But underlying their calls for greater public understanding of genetics is a massive unspoken assumption: that once people see and understand what the scientists are doing, they will approve.

Just as valid a reaction might be to reinterpret the old story of Genesis. To the geneticists' claim that with this new knowledge 'ye shall be as gods', the public might well respond that we do not wish to eat of this particular tree. Are humans really wise enough to be as gods? Can we really cope with the power that this knowledge brings?

What if the people in whose name this research is being done were to say: thank you, we have understood, and we do not want this particular line of research (into the so-called 'gay gene', perhaps) to continue? That would be the ultimate test of whether the modern geneticists have escaped the fearful legacy of their eugenicist predecessors and are willing to conduct their science under democratic control.

Tom Wilkie's book on the social implications of modern genetics, 'Perilous Knowledge', is published by Faber and Faber at pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)