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BILL CLINTON and Tony Blair hailed the rough draft of the entire human genetic code as "the most wondrous map ever produced by human kind". But with science and technology driven by big business will its potential benefits to cure diseases worldwide be realised? The Socialist looks at the implications of this scientific breakthrough.
Your Genes in capitalism's hands
LAST WEEK scientists from the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the private firm Celera announced that they had mapped the entire human genetic code. The response to this breakthrough from politicians and scientists has been ecstatic, saying that it is more important than the invention of the wheel or the moon landing.
THE HGP was set up to produce a complete record of all the three billion or so bases that form the human genome (see chart). Despite the ballyhoo last week, only the first draft of 'the book of life' has been finished. It will probably be another three years before the task is complete and even then there will be errors and gaps.
The timing of the announcement is almost certainly because of a compromise between the publicly funded HGP and the private sector. They hope that a joint announcement will avoid squabbles and lawsuits over "who got there first", which would threaten government grants and the huge profits that the private firms hope to make.
The HGP was set up by the US Congress in 1988. It was the brainchild of James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA and who became the HGP's first director. Watson wrote in 1990: "The nations of the world must see that the human genome belongs to the world's people, as opposed to its nations."
Two years later, when his own government applied to patent sections of genes, Watson resigned from the project, refusing to take part in what he called a "land grab". Since then governments, universities and private firms have made thousands of applications to patent genes and parts of genes.
According to Dr Sue Meyer from the policy group Genewatch UK: "The really disturbing thing is that the human genome is falling increasingly into private hands. So the science is driven by private interests, aiming at maximising their shareholder value, rather than addressing public health issues."
Private firms have the power to block vital research. A company with a patent on a gene can demand royalties from anyone else working on the same gene.
Companies have already tried to charge royalties to groups working on a breast cancer gene and a gene important in HIV infection. A geneticist at St Mary's Hospital, Manchester, testing for cystic fibrosis and breast cancer genes has already had a demand for royalties from one company. (New Scientist - 20/5/00).
Biotech company Genentech agreed to pay the University of California $200 million for infringing a patent held by the university for a sequence of DNA relating to a human growth hormone.
Supporters of patents argue that they are the only way of ensuring that private companies carry out genetic research. This is true - according to the driving motive of capitalism, private profit is more important than scientific discovery or public health.
What's been achieved?
WHEN THE first maps of the world were produced it was a sign that people were starting to explore new territory. Even a complete map of the human genome would be no more than a guide to areas that might be worth looking at more closely.
Scientists believe that each human being has about 100,000 genes. Only a few thousand of these genes are known. One benefit of the HGP is that it should become much easier to find 'new' genes.
Scientists can 'read the map' looking for areas that might be genes. Once a gene has been identified more study would be needed to find out what it does.
The way that genes interact with each other and the environment is extremely complex and poorly understood.
For example, adult height involves around a hundred genes and the effects of the environment. No-one could possibly predict how tall a child will grow just by studying its genes.
'Cause and effect' between genes and disease is also far from clear cut. Foe example, BRCA1 'the breast cancer gene' accounts for fewer than 5% of breast cancers: 30% of women with the gene never develop breast cancer [New Scientist 18/1/97].
There are only a few cases where a disease can be linked to a particular gene - eg Huntingdon's chorea, or a faulty gene - eg cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anaemia. The HGP will make it easier to discover more of these types of diseases and to develop ways of preventing and treating them.
This would happen through tests to identify people at risk of developing the diseases later in life, or of having children with the diseases. These type of tests already exist but the HGP will undoubtedly lead to many more being available - including tests for genetic diseases that we're not even aware of at present.
However, under capitalism this could lead to pressure on women for abortions if the foetus is carrying 'faulty genes'. It could also increase prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. A socialist society would instead make resources available for care and support services, women could then make a choice free from material pressures. Disabled people would enjoy equal rights and opportunities in society.
ANOTHER DANGER under capitalism is people with 'faulty genes' being discriminated against in the jobs market and for health insurance, etc.
In the future, for example, a quick analysis of your DNA could reveal a 28% chance of heart disease by the age of 55 and a 53% chance of Alzheimer's disease by the age of 75.
And although compulsory testing would be considered unacceptable practise at present, who's to say that in the future medical examinations for job applicants could include information on a person's genetic profile being used by employers.
According to Professor Sheila McLean, Professor of Law and Ethics in Medicine at the University of Glasgow: "In the whole world, there is just one state in the US which has passed laws preventing employers asking potential employees to divulge genetic information or even take tests.
"And in the UK, the disability anti-discrimination legislation specifically excludes those with gene defects, unless they are already ill."
In the US, people have been dropped by their insurers from health cover plans, following adverse genetic tests.
US federal law now bans the discrimination on the basis of genetic tests for those in group plans.
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) code of practice states that results of genetic tests already performed can be asked for but can only be used in underwriting if judged by the Genetics and Insurance Committee to be "reliable and valid for insurance purposes".
Given the discrimination faced by people with HIV/AIDS it isn't scaremongering to point out that inequalities and discrimination are inherent under capitalism.
The HGP could lead to treatments based on detailed information about "what's gone wrong" with a gene or group of genes. This would be the basis for developing safe forms of gene therapy and new drugs with very precise and predictable effects - they could even be tailored to meet the needs of individuals, not just groups of people.
But, again, the main obstacle to realising such progress is the inevitable tendency under capitalism to concentrate on profitable treatments.
In the US, for example, 45 million people currently lack basic medical insurance and only the rich can afford the expensive treatments.
In Britain underfunding of the NHS and rationing of life-saving treatments has contributed to a rise in mortality rates among working-class males from treatable diseases, while those who rank highest in incomes and status are enjoying longer and healthier life spans.
The real 'genetic underclass' will be the world's poor - the ones with diseases like TB malaria, AIDS etc, who lack the means to buy expensive treatments.
Pharmaceutical and biomedical companies already concentrate on profitable 'first world' diseases (see opposite), writing off large swathes of humanity.
To utilise scientific breakthroughs in medicine and technology like the HGP for the benefit of the world's populations, firstly, means breaking the straitjacket of the capitalist profit system. It means fighting for a programme of socialist nationalisation of these giant transnational companies and placing their immense resources under the democratic control and management of the world's working class and poor.
Mapping the stuff of life
SCIENTISTS HAVE for the last ten years been mapping and sequencing all of the DNA in a human cell. A map for the whole human body could be used to cure all diseases, eventually.
The human genome is all the genetic information that is needed to build a human being. The genome is within each cell of our bodies and consists of all the DNA in a cell.
The way that cells, chromosomes, DNA and genes are linked is vital to the understanding of the Human Genome Project (HGP).
There are 75 trillion (7,500,000 billion) identical cells running through human bodies. Within each cell there is a nucleus (centre) that is made up of 46 chromosomes. These chromosomes are inherited - 22 from your mother and 22 from your father. The final two are sex chromosomes, and males have an X and Y and females have two Xs. Chromosomes contain within them equal parts of DNA and protein.
The excitement is about the coding of the DNA in the chromosomes of a cell. If you unravelled a chromosome you would find a long string-like ladder of DNA (a molecule). The DNA structure can be read from the rungs of the ladder. The rungs contain only four elements: ie adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G).
The order of these letters (A,T,C,G) on the ladder is called the DNA sequence. By giving the letters A,T,C and G to each small block of the DNA the scientists have built a huge book made up of massive words, which they know where they go but do not yet understand what they mean.
Genes play the defining role in what we look like, our susceptibility to disease and ability to fight it. Genes tell our bodies when to make proteins, which make cells and tissue as well as enzymes which are vital for biochemical reactions.
The estimated number of genes in a human genome is around 100,000. Mutations of the genes passed down from parents is the cause of many diseases. The study of genes will be vital in bringing about future medical discoveries.
In The Socialist 7 July 2000: