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"Dangers of Reprogramming Cells" [Letter to the Editor of Science]

American Association for the Advancement of Science
Publication Date
  • Biology
  • Computer Science
  • Medicine
  • Political Science


SCIENCE 158: 313 Letters Dangers of Reprogramming Cells In an editorial, “Will society be prepared?” (11 Aug., p. 6331, Niren- berg wrote about the prospects Of moIecular genetics: Cells will be programmed with SYIP thetic messages within 25 years . . . and when man becomes capable of program- miny, his own cells, he must refrain from doing so until he has suficient wisdom to use this knowledge for the benefit of mankind. No subject of poIicy is more impor- tant than this, and it deserves the most critical debate. There is some danger that, whether so intended or not, Niren- berg’s language coukl generate public misunderstandings that might undercut the very research .needed to reach suf- ficient wisdom. His underlying con- cern, which I share, is that biological control might be used by a malevolent government to the peril of individual freedom. As Hitler’s racial policy illus- trated only too well, the State’s access to forcible compulsion already gives it the power of genocide. Presumably we have to be even more concerned about subtler mistakes. A well-intentioned government might im- pose rash commitments for the sake of short-term advantages. Plainly we must be very sensitive about innova- tions that, once introduced, constitute irreversibk evohltionnry deviations. However, we should emphasize the distinction between eugenics, that is, programmed evolution, and euphenics, that is, the reprogramming of somatic cells and the modification of develop- ment. “~lessagc” does carry a strong connotation of R??A messengers with somatic effects. To interdict such per- ms~nal usss of messages \vould be hard to justify without a prohibition on all new medicine, especially such interven- tions w the use of hormones. If only germinal messages are meant, it: have other prospas to worry about too. The mnnipdntion of germ cells for genetic surgery would almost certainly be pre- ceded by techniques for clonal propaga- tion and

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