‘Morality’ and the Patenting of Genes


We have the privilege to be living at a very unique time in human history. It is a time when scientific and technological advances have reached a stage whereby the accumulated discoveries of over 2000 years have begun to trigger a qualitative leap in control over the forces of nature.

Reports of scientific advances in understanding how nature works are appearing with increasing regularity. Discoveries made in the last few months alone are opening the door to a quantum leap in control over the genetic mechanism of humans and other species. It promises huge benefits for the human race.

But, as is all too apparent, there are two sides to the vital matter of scientific and technological progress-one filled with hope, and the other with despair. But first, the good side:

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The latest advances in understanding of the working of genes in the double helix of the human genome and of less complex species promises a cornucopia of medical advances for humanity.

Using such techniques as finding out the function of each gene in worms and mice, for instance, provide clues for discovering what they do in the human genome.

These and other scientific breakthroughs have already laid a firm basis for a qualitatively longer and healthier lifespan for all human beings.

Just last month alone, a growing number of startling reports by eminent scientists have appeared. They report discoveries that they claim have put them at the brink of being able to stretch the human life span by as much as 200years.

They report that such an extension of life span has been accomplished in mammals-not to mention in less complex organisms like fruit flies and worms.

They note, too, that it was accomplished by altering just one or a few of the thousands and tens of thousands of genes in these organisms-genes which are similar if not identical to those in the human genome.

(The relationship between genes and DNA is like the relation between words in the dictionary and the 26 letters of the alphabet. It is estimated that the human genome contains around 100,000 genes, and the genetic alphabet containing just four “letters” constitutes some three billion units in the human DNA.)

In fact, scientists report, the evidence is now overwhelming that the rate of the aging process determining the life span of each species is not predetermined and unalterable.

The life spans of all species are based on an internal genetic clock that governs the rate of degeneration of organs in all species. And that, in turn, is a product of natural selection, the mechanism of biological evolution.

Reproduction in all species is a process in which the genetic code of an organism, its genome, is copied and constitutes the “blueprint” for the physiology of an individual’s offspring.

Mistakes are made in the copying of the DNA constituents of each gene. And these accidental changes in the makeup of genes that result in mutations are preserved and proliferate in a species only if it serves to foster the survival of a given colony of a given species.

The genetically determined rate of aging (the life span of each species) can evolve in either direction-aging faster or slower-at a rate that maximizes the survival of each species. In other words, aging and death is not a mysterious, unfathomable, mystical and unalterable process.

In Los Angeles early last month, New York Times science writer Gina Kolata reported on a gathering of research scientists in cellular and molecular biology and related disciplines. The article, “Pushing Limits of the Human Life Span,” reported on the “astonishing success in recent years in increasing the life spans of laboratory species,” among them, worms, fruit flies and mice.

Moreover, it was reported, the organisms mentioned had the healthypart of their lives, their youthful years, extended-not the debilitating weeks, months, or years of degeneration, sickness, and ultimate failure of organs that normally precede and cause death.

In recent years, many other momentous discoveries in the field of cellular and molecular biology laid the basis for those reported last month.

For instance, the discovery that while the cells that make up all living organisms are able to replicate themselves only a limited number ofTimes (about 50 Times in humans), the embryonic cells (stem cells) in all organisms start out with the capability of multiplying an unlimited number of Times.

But, that capacity is turned off when each stem cell in the embryo differentiates into becoming a part of a different developing organ-heart, lungs, skin, muscle, bone, etc.

Thus, investigation into the possibilities inherent in this phenomenon has already succeeded in discovering how the “immortality” function of embryonic cells can be turned on again after it has become specialized and thereby begins-in a sense-to die.

Biological scientists have noted that the discoveries made in recent years and months are opening the door to growing new heart, lung, and other cells of the various organs. No one, they say, really dies “of old age,” it’s the degeneration and failure of these organs that causes death. In principle, they also say, the human life span can be extended far beyond the norm today, if not indefinitely.

In The Times piece by reporter Kolata, she exemplifies the general opinion of scientists attending the LA conference. She quotes Dr. Judith Campisi, who heads the department of cellular and molecular biology at the Berkeley National Laboratory, who said: “We know we can extend the life span of mammals. There is no reason to believe we couldn’t do the same today in humans.”

And she quotes Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, who concurred with these words: “It is probably possible. The lights are green everywhere you go.”

Capitalism is not good for your health

Unfortunately, however, the profit system is a giant obstacle standing in the way of fully realizing the promise of this and other potential benefits to all humanity.

Nicholas Wade, another science writer for The Times, wrote a follow-up report on extending life span early last month that-intentionally or not-points to some of the ways in which capitalism subverts the interests of humanity to its irrepressible quest for profits. The report is titled, “Primordial Cells Fuel Debate on Ethics.”

Wade explains at the outset of his report: “Officials of the National Institutes of Health are seeking legal advice as to whether the Congressional ban on fetal research applies to the primordial human [stem] cells that scientists announced last week they had isolated and grown in the laboratory for the first time.” (The importance of this achievement cannot be overstated.)

Now, the ethics in question is not a matter of anything like scientific experimentation on animals or humans that cause harm or unnecessary pain to either. It’s about experiments with human cells that would otherwise be dumped into the nearest sewer.

But why is that a matter of ethics? Solely because of the objections to this research by those claiming expert knowledge on when human life begins. They tend to be the same people who claim that terminating a pregnancy for whatever reason equals the “murder of babies.”

In 1995, these mischievous fundamentalist fanatics-with the help, to be sure, of powerful forces in corporate America-succeeded in imposing a ban on experiments on frozen human “blastocysts” slated to be discarded.

(A blastocyst is the earliest stage of an embryo. At that stage, the stem cells are still a microscopic clump. These cells are inactive until they have been thawed, inserted in a womb and allowed to begin multiplying on the way to becoming a viable fetus.

These primordial cells, extracted from a blastocyst and successfully grown in a laboratory for the first time, are the key to the recent breakthrough that opens the door to the extension of the human life span.)

Where do these blastocysts come from? Women who have difficulty conceiving or are not able to carry a pregnancy to term may decide to deposit their eggs in the care of fertility clinics. The eggs are then sometimes artificially inseminated and frozen for future implantation in the donor’s or a surrogate mother’s womb.

The contention of consistent religious fundamentalists is that the 20 or so cells in a fertilized egg are already a “baby,” and extracting these cells from the blastocyst kills the blastocyst and thus is “killing a baby.”

This leap into a realm inhabited by ghosts and souls has an even more absurd implication since an unfertilized egg cannot grow and be born. This fact implies that the sperm is what carries the essence of human life (i.e., the “soul”), and that the egg is a mere receptacle of life.

But aside from the religious and patriarchal prejudices, the fact is that in the last few years scientists have succeeded in cloning sheep and other mammals. The technique of cloning consists in fertilizing the egg of a sheep, mouse, etc., with an ordinary cell taken from the mother sheep-not with sperm from a male of the same species.

And, these scientists say, there is no reason to believe that humans cannot also be cloned. Thus if the soul is in the sperm, which hitherto was the only way to fertilize the egg, there is a soul in every cell of a human being. That would add up to billions of souls in every single man or woman. That’s an absurdity at least twice confounded!

The unstated, but real, question of ethics

This article on primordial cells and ethics was written by a good science writer doing his job. However, the real, but unstated ethical violation running like a red thread through Times reporter Wade’s story is not about when human life begins, or about the obstacle this presents to scientific progress.

The legal advice (mentioned at the beginning of his report) being sought has to do with government funding of research since many university biologists depend on government funding to finance their research.

While Wade draws no conclusions for his readers, he nonetheless provides the facts leading to the conclusions in this article. He reports the “ethical dilemma” of two of these university research scientists, Dr. Leonard Guarente, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin.

Both are associated with Geron, the company that has exclusive rightsto the primordial cells!

Dr. Thomson was one of two scientists who recently succeeded, for the first time, in growing primordial human cells in a laboratory. It seems that while it’s legal for a private enterprise, in this case Geron, to experiment on blastocysts, the earliest embryonic stage of a fertilized human egg, Dr. Guarente, whose research is funded by a government agency, is barred from any research in which blastocysts are destroyed even if they had been slated to be discarded down the nearest sewer.

The “ethical” problem really boils down to costs of production and profits and which capitalist enterprise will gain the lion’s share of the expected profit bonanza. Their dilemma is that while Dr. Thomson took no federal funds for his research, Dr. Guarente did.

Their company, Geron Inc.-which surely exchanges information gained by different scientists in its organization-wants Dr. Guarente to continue to get government funding, but like his colleague, Dr. Thomson, to also have access to working on human blastocysts.

Moreover, Geron Inc. may be worried that some zealous fundamentalist government overseer might see the connection between the work of Geron’s two researchers and draw the obvious conclusion that the government was indirectly subsidizing experiments with blastocysts. Now, that’s a real dilemma!

It has been reported that genetically modified organisms, like corn, soy, and other seeds have been patented. This includes such bizarre genetic modifications as including in the patented seeds what some have called a “death” gene. That is, the insertion of a gene that produces only infertileseeds. That way, the farmer has to go back to the seed corporation to buy more seeds for the next season’s crop.

As an indication of the big bucks involved in the new science of genetic modification, the March 16 edition of The New York Times reports that DuPont, the giant chemical company, has offered $7.7 billion for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seed corn. DuPont wants in on this giant profits bonanza.

Consortiums in race for trillions in profits

In a Times article by Nicholas Wade (March 16), we get a peek into the billion dollar race by chemical and pharmaceutical corporate consortiums for first prize in what could be a winner-take-all contest. This report gives even greater insight into the substance of capitalism’s “ethical dilemma.”

Wade reports that the big enchilada in this contest is which of the two competing consortiums will be first to sequence the entire three billion DNA units of the human genome.

Whether thewinner will or will not be entitled to patent the entire human genome, of course, is too crazy for even wild-eyed capitalists to hope to get away with.

Even so, there will be many patentable discoveries to be found along the way. And one or several key patents may succeed in locking in a major hunk of the big-profit enchilada.

One side of this contest is dominated by American and British government agencies-including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department, and the British government’s Wellcome Trust of London. The other contender is Celera Corporation of Rockville, Md.

Although few details are given of the corporate forces behind Celera, it appears to be a front for some of the major corporations interested in gaining a lock on the big prize coming from the sequencing of the human genome.

At the same time, we can be sure, the private enterprisers have their hands inside the publicly financed consortium as well as in Celera corporation. After all, they own and control both the U.S. and British capitalist states and all its agencies.

But what makes the contest real, just the same, is that the major corporate players hope to use Celera to protect their interests against those of their competitors that for the moment may have more influence in the political superstructure of the United States and Great Britain.

Too many people?

Dr. Campisi, one of the aforementioned speakers at the LA conference, cited above, told Ms. Kolata, The Times reporter, of having given a public lecture at her campus. Afterward, the research scientist said, “a number of people came up to me and said: ‘How dare you do this research? The earth is already being raped by too many people, there is so much garbage, so much pollution.'”

This tired old notion is another of the many reincarnations of the views of Thomas Malthus, a late 18th/early 19th century English political economist and capitalist ideologue.

Malthus is famous for the reactionary theory that the population of the world, which increases geometrically (2-4-8-16, etc), tends to increase faster than the food supply, which he claimed increases only arithmetically (1-2-3-4, etc.). Thus, he argued that war, famine and disease have the virtue of serving as natural restrictions preventing world overpopulation!

Malthus’s aim was to rationalize war, hunger, and disease as nature’s (or God’s) way of preventing overpopulation. But the bare facts of a thousand-fold increase in population since Malthus, along with more than a thousand-fold increase in agricultural production, adequately refutes the notion of a conflict between geometric and arithmetic progression or that nature or the great spirit is at fault.

It’s important to answer similarly reactionary and baseless notions by today’s capitalist rationalizers, since there are many well-meaning people blaming scientific and technological progress-especially idealistic youth concerned with the accelerating pollution of the planet who are being sucked in by the today’s whipping boy for the crimes of capitalism.

Today’s neo-Malthusians blame scientists and legitimate scientific and technological progress for the crimes against nature and humanity, and in so doing, deflect attention from the capitalist source of this accelerating threat to life on this planet.

It wasn’t that long ago that scientists like Dr. Jonas Salk still put human need above profit.

He refused to demand a monetary reward for his discovery of a vaccine that prevents poliomyelitis. He saw to it that his vaccine would be available virtually free of charge to children and their parents.

Dr. Salk, like many other medical scientists before him, would not contemplate putting a price tag on his discovery that had abolished the panic that engulfed parents everywhere in every summer’s polio season.

But that was before the practice of medicine and medical science was transformed into big business controlled by giant insurance companies, banks, and chemical and pharmaceutical corporations.

Dr. Salk, however, got his reward anyway; a far better and more fulfilling reward, the satisfaction of helping his fellow human beings and the respect that consequently came his way. Even more important, he-like the many Louis Pasteurs before him-set an example for others to follow as did so many of those who preceded him.

But world capitalism is now in its final stages of degeneration. Capitalism long ago began transforming love, honor, friendship, and loyalty into commodities.

Now, in the capitalist world, these human virtues are bought and sold at a handsome profit by those who have cornered the market, so to speak, in these commodities. Now the human genome is in the process of becoming a commodity as well.

The solidarity of homo sapiens-the cooperation and fraternity, and the uniquely human capacity for compassion extending even to other species-has been gradually eroded by the profit system for centuries and has now entered a period of explosive disintegration.

The highest ethic of capitalism-every man for himself-will, if unchecked in the only way possible, by world socialist revolution, end in the destruction of our species.

Spirit of human solidarity-alive in Cuba

Cuba, a poor island nation of 11 million people, although besieged, beleaguered, blockaded, starved, and isolated from the world community of nations by American imperialism, is providing a sharp contrast between science in the capitalist world and in socialist Cuba.

Despite the awesomely difficult conditions imposed on it, this small country has managed to honor the ties that bind human beings together. The solidarity of the revolutionary government of Cuba with its people is what enables this David to stand up to the world’s most ruthless and powerful Goliath, only 90 miles from its shores.

But Cuba has also set another example in the sphere of medical science that is the subject of this article:

In a report titled, “Cuban Medicine Leaps Into the Future,” appearing in the March 18 San Francisco Chronicle, the author, Barry Brown, tells the following remarkable story of a small miracle accomplished by Cuban science. It is a science devoted to meeting the needs of Cuba’s people, not to the blind pursuit of profit.

The author writes:

“A Cuban-developed cancer vaccine now undergoing clinical trials in Canada could prove to be a medical boon for people all over the world-except Americans, who would not be able to buy the drug in the United States because of laws barring trade with Cuba.”

Brown’s report is based largely on what David Allen, CEO of a small Toronto-based medical company, told him about what he saw in Cuba.

Allen had struck a deal with Cuba to market its leading-edge pharmaceutical products. His company is currently organizing the clinical trials necessary before distributing the vaccine around the world.Such clinical tests have already been successfully concluded in Cuba, but must now be verified in Canadian tests before distribution outside Cuba.

“We were amazed, astonished and surprised,” Allen told the Chronicle, reporter. “We were amazed at the level of science and surprised because we didn’t expect it.”

The reporter continues: “What Allen found was a well-integrated research and product development community, run by scientists, [not profit-driven private enterprise] with the goal of developing marketable medicines. … They have a small nation with not many resources, so they have used the brains and the talent of their people.”

The reporter goes on to take note of American imperialism’s relentless efforts to harm Cuba, albeit in guarded language: “But sources at the U.S. State and Treasury Departments say these therapies-even if they turn out to be ‘miracle drugs’-could not be legally sold in the United States without a special license, a development that is not currently on the horizon.”

Meanwhile, the author reports on further measures taken by the American government to block Cuba’s efforts to market the product of its science for the benefit of the Cuban economy hamstrung by U.S. imperialism.

He reports how the U.S. Treasury Department is “in discussions” with the London-based pharmaceutical giant Smith Kline Beacham over its plans to market another Cuban-developed vaccine for meningitis B.

The Chronicle reporter’s clear implication is that the U.S. government is trying to pressure Smith Kline Beacham from distributing the meningitis B vaccine.

The contrast between the morality of American and Cuban science is clear. The American way is to subordinate the product of modern science in both the U.S. and Cuba-as well as wherever in the world its tentacles can reach-to profits and to the political aims of American capitalism, at whatever harm results to human needs.

In Cuba, the simple, unadorned truth is that the morality of Cuba’s socialist government is based on what is in the interests of Cuba’s people.

This is a morality in harmony with the interests of the peoples of the entire world. And that’s a pretty big difference in “ethics”!

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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