It seems hardly a week goes by without some announcement of yet another breakthrough in medical technology. These technologies, we are told, will revolutionize our lives and give humans the power to direct our own evolution. Technologies like stem cell research, genetic testing, gene therapy, cloning, nano-biotechnology and xenotransplantation will, in the not too distant future, make it possible to design our children, clone ourselves, genetically manipulate our intellectual and physical performance, and meld our minds with the artificial intelligence of computers. These are technologies that will not only revolutionize medicine, but also change who we are as human beings.
Living on Earth presents a five part series by award-winning Canadian Public Broadcasting producer Bob Carty examining how medical science could change the way we humans will evolve.
Part 5: Gene therapy
Published: August 2, 2002
Gene therapy directly changes genes within the body to help heal illness. Gene therapy is used in cells that are not involved in reproduction, so any changes are to the individual, not to future generations. It has been heralded as the cure-all for everything from cancer to heart failure to baldness. Initial gene therapy trials were not promising, but there have been some recent breakthroughs that have made scientists optimistic about the future of this technology. There are, however, many concerns. One is that genes can migrate inside the body. Another safety concern is that the viruses used to get the genes inside the body could join up with other virus DNA and become new diseases. And then there's the famous case of the boy who had an allergic reaction to a gene therapy virus and died after taking part in research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Part 4: Genetic Manipulation
Published: July 5, 2002
Genetic manipulation describes the process of creating so-called designer babies, where scientists correct or improve a gene feature by manipulation in the embryo, sometimes called germ line manipulation or inheritable genetic modification. The idea is to go into the cells of an embryo and add a gene or take away a gene to try to change the outcome. This, in essence, gives us the power to direct the evolution of ourselves. Genetic manipulation differs from gene therapy because changes made to one human are transferred to other generations. This work is not yet being done in humans because it raises a host of ethical questions, but it is very common in scientific experiments on animals. According to some polls, between 40 and 45 percent of Americans approved of the concept of using genetic manipulation to bolster physical and intellectual traits in their children.
Part 3: Cyborg
Published: June 7, 2002
A cyborg is a melding of human and machine to make a bionic human. More specifically, it is a human with bodily functions aided or controlled by technical devices. It sounds futuristic, but there are experiments going on today that could be the precursors to this medical technology. A professor in England has experimented with placing a silicon chip in his arm, which sent out a signal by radio to a computer showing his location. Some believe that computers will surpass humans, and that cyborgs could surpass humans evolutionarily. Therefore, they believe, the risk lies not in exploring this technology, but rather in ignoring it. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist and science writer, said, "We have to have direct links between human brains and computers to keep ahead of advances in computer technology and stop intelligent machines from taking over the world."
Scientists have succeeded in cloning animals. Some are boasting that a human will be cloned within the year. In fact, there is speculation that a woman may be pregnant now with a cloned embryo. Critics of cloning say this opens the way for cloning human twins who would be created for spare parts, thus opening the door for research on humans. They also say that cloning may never be safe. Most cloned experiments die and those that survive are exceedingly overweight and beset with problems. Will cloning ever be safe? Will it ever be ethical?
Xenotransplantation is a remarkable procedure that involves putting animal parts into humans, and human parts into animals. it could save thousands of lives and put an end to the tragedy of patients dying while waiting for a human organ transplant; however, it is feared that it could set off a terrible pandemic on the scale of AIDS. This piece includes interviews with scientists on both sides of the debate and with a Parkinson's patient who claims the injection of pig cells into his brain changed his life for the better.
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