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Volume 68, Issue 136, April 18, 2003


Genetics prompting legal, ethical issues

By Jessica Brown
The Daily Cougar

Modern developments made possible by genetics research will bring many legal and ethical questions to debate with far-ranging social and health impacts, Janis Hutchinson, a professor of anthropology, said.

"I can foresee a time when we can take our own genetic sequence to a doctor on a diskette, as a part of your doctor visit," Hutchinson said. 

With this technology potentially offering oneis individual and vital information, Hutchinson fears that insurance companies could possibly use the obtained information against individuals. 

An example of this can be seen in African Americans, where the chances of having hypertension runs high, Hutchinson says, so therefore insurance coverage could be denied.

Hutchinson explains that there are already genetic discrimination laws being put forth to congress that will protect the public from just such a scenario, and a number of states have already passed such legislation. 

The DNA of military recruits is mapped out upon entering into the military. Hutchinson argues, however, that this should not be done with everyone, and that additional laws would need to be created protecting the privacy of individual citizens prohibiting information from being publicly accessible. Itis those records that, once available to certain parties, provide an opportunity for discrimination.

Other modern uses of DNA are focused on criminal forensics and victim identification. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, scientists were able to use DNA to identify many of the nearly 3,000 victims.

Cloning also has become an ethical and legal issue debated in society. While animals of several species have been cloned -- from cats to sheep -- no verifiable claim to clone a human has been made. In addition to a federal ban, nine states have laws prohibiting "reproductive" cloning. The first of which was California in 1997.

In December of last year, the corporation Clonaid grabbed headlines by claiming to have produced the worldis first cloned human being. Those claims have yet to be verified by independent scientific inquiries, and Clonaid has yet to proffer its own evidence, not even the DNA samples that would match the clones.

Dolly the Sheep, who was the worldis first mammalian clone, died in February this year, nearly seven years after her birth in 1996 awed the world.

The two-day conference at UH this week entitled "From Double Helix to Human Sequence and Beyond," celebrated the advances made in genetic research since the unraveling of the structure of DNA 50 years ago. 

It was then when the evolution of the genome product began; the conference Monday was able to report the completion of the human genome ahead of schedule, marking what experts are calling a benchmark in the field of genetic research.

The conference, coordinated by Hutchinson, also included a presentation dubbed "Reflections on the 50th Anniversary" from James Watson, and a recorded dialogue form Sir Francis Crick. The two are credited with deciphering the double-helix structure of DNA. Through the progression of technology scientists have been able to create and more rapidly produce proteins, which are derived from deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

Researchers are hopeful to one day be able to use information stored in DNA to predict a personis susceptibility and resistance to diseases. 

"Genetic research has also provided information that will potentially have a significant effect on our social environment. Through DNA, scientists have determined that races do not exist among people and that, from one human being to the next, we are all more similar than different," said Hutchinson, who regularly teaches physical anthropology -- in which DNA plays a role. 

All human beings are 99.9% similar, she explained; itis the .1% that makes it possible for billions of individuals. 

The innovative advances being made in technology will presently change the way in which we view our surrounding world and will surely change the way in which we view ourselves as a species. 

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