Playing God with Human DNA


On Thursday, June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that human genes isolated from the body can’t be patented.

Such a case would have been unthinkable 60 years ago, when medical researchers were just starting to make progress in molecular biology: the study of how genes control the actions of living cells.

Scientists already knew that chromosomes—the long strands of a complex molecule called DNA—control the function of cells. But they still didn’t understand how DNA holds the information required to assemble and operate every human cell. If they could gain this information—“the molecular facts of life” as a Post author expressed—they might be able to increase, alter, or stop certain activities within cells. Doctors could halt cancers, grow new nerve tissues, or repair cells damaged by disease.

A major breakthrough came on April 25, 1953, when British scientists James Watson and Francis Crick published the results of their DNA research. In the article, they presented their theory on how DNA was constructed and how it worked. [For the Post’s explanation of their work, see “The Messages of Life,” by James Bonner, April 15, 1961.]

Building on the X-ray imaging data of other researchers, Watson and Crick hypothesized that DNA has a double-helix structure. Crudely put, it is shaped like a spiral ladder. Each rung is composed of a link between two nucleotide molecules. All genetic information is encoded within the long sequence of these molecule pairs.

The double-helix model earned international recognition for Watson, Crick, and colleague Maurice Wilkins. Nine years later, it earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

With this new understanding of how DNA works, researchers began searching for ways in which they could manipulate the DNA transfer of genetic material to assist in human reproduction, halt inherited diseases, and regenerate healthy tissue.

However the great potential of genetic medicine brought moral complexities, leading medicine into areas where there are no clear ethical boundaries. For example, prenatal screening might tell parents that their fetus is likely to develop a severe, inherited disease. Should they gamble on a procedure to alter the child’s genetic makeup, or wait to see what develops, knowing that it might then be too late to alter the situation?

Or, a young woman with a history of breast cancer takes a genetic test that reveals she has the breast cancer genes BRCA1 or BRCA2. Should she and her physician consider a radical mastectomy on the potential risk? Should her insurance carrier be involved in the decision?

As early as 1965, the Post was reporting the concerns that genetic manipulation might put too much power into the hands of doctors. In an article ambitiously titled “The Secret of Life,” Journalist Max Gunther asked, “if it becomes possible to control human heredity, who will decide which traits should be inherited by whom? On strictly moral grounds, the thought of man having this power has caused a certain amount of uneasiness among both scientists and laymen.”

Gunther quoted a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute, who told him, “You can see why people might be worried. If we ever reach a stage where we can exert a highly detailed kind of control over life and heredity, we’ll be in somewhat the same position we were in when we harnessed atomic energy.”

Today, in addition to ethical questions, legal and financial concerns are further complicating genetic medicine. Researchers in the past decade have taken information, which was developed by the nonprofit Human Genome Project, and identified which genes are closely linked to diseases. Their sponsoring companies have patented this information—the DNA sequencing that makes up the breast cancer genes, for example. Consequently, other researchers working in this area are prohibited from studying or developing this information.

As the Supreme Court heard from a gene-patent company that wanted to protect the investment it made to find the breast cancer gene, it also heard from doctors, researchers, and patients who want this information made public.

It took the combined genius of Watson, Crick, and others to understand how DNA was structured and how it operated. It will take an even greater work of genius to understand how to balance the medical, financial, legal, political, and ethical applications of what was discovered 60 years ago.