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Biomedical Frontiers: Genetics

F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.
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  • Economics
  • Engineering
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  • Medicine


The Challenge of Life Biomedical Progress and Human Values Roche Anniversary Symposium 231 Biomedical frontiers: genetics by JOSHUALEDERBERG From time to time during the past decade, I have been challenged to collect my thoughts about the human implications of advances in genetic research. My first reactions were typical of those of many of my colleagues when they first looked up from the laboratory bench. Suddenly all things seemed possible - and on an earth which lies between heaven and hell, this prospect is at best ambivalent. One can catalog the most plausible technical options, and I will not shirk this part of my task (see Tablel). However, to do only this almost inevitably leads to misunderstandings and misattributions. Furthermore, our forecasts will be factually wrong if they do not take account of the cultural setting, as well as the scientific bases, of health research and its applications. For example, I once offered what I thought was a safely ironic formula: ‘given sufficient time, any enterprise (including the renovation of man) would become possible, provided it did not violate some basic law of physical nature’. Long before we had mastered interstellar transportation and taught computers to write good poetry, we would surely have eliminated death; and genetic engineering would be a closer step on the same path. Given suficient time made the formula safely tautologous. Even so, it conceals latent assumptions - that the human enterprise will continue, and that it will encompass an enduring commitment to scientific inquiry and its application to health and economic etliciency. I did not then seriously doubt that scientific work would continue to double every twelve or fifteen years. Its internal information flow might nevertheless be overloaded, and the integrity and efficiency of the careers of individual scientists might become the limiting factors in the overall growth of knowledge. (Inno- vation cannot outpace the rat

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