Animal Writes
4 March 2001 Issue
What's Wrong With Genetic Engineering

Submitted by [email protected] 

Genetic engineering is a radical new technology, one that breaks down fundamental genetic barriers -- not only between species, but between humans, animals, and plants. By combining the genes of dissimilar and unrelated species, permanently altering their genetic codes, novel organisms are created that will pass the genetic changes onto their offspring through heredity. Scientists are now snipping, inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and programming genetic material. Animal genes and even human genes are being inserted into plants or animals creating unimagined transgenic life forms. For the first time in history, human beings are becoming the architects of life. Bio-engineers will be creating tens of thousands of novel organisms over the next few years. The prospect is frightening. Genetic engineering poses unprecedented ethical and social concerns, as well as serious challenges to the environment, human health, animal welfare, and the future of agriculture. The following is just a sample of concerns:

The genetic engineering and patenting of animals reduces living beings to the status of manufactured products and will result in much suffering. In January 1994, then-USDA Secretary Mike Espy announced that USDA scientists had completed genome "road maps" for cattle and pigs, a precursor to ever more experimentation on live animals. In addition to the cruelty inherent in such experimentation (the mistakes are born with painful deformities, crippled, blind, and so on), these "manufactured" creatures have no greater value to their "creators" than mechanical inventions. Animals genetically engineered for use in laboratories, such as the infamous "Harvard mouse" which contains a human cancer-causing gene that will be passed down to all succeeding generations, were created to suffer. A purely reductionist science, biotechnology reduces all life to bits of information (genetic code) that can be arranged and rearranged at whim. Stripped of their integrity and sacred qualities, animals who are merely objects to their "inventors" will be treated as such. Currently, more than 200 genetically
engineered "freak" animals are awaiting patent approval from the federal government.

Farm animal productivity:
Much genetic engineering is aimed at getting farm animals to grow bigger and more rapidly. Yet health studies stress that people should be reducing their intake of animal products: a vegetarian diet reduces the risk of chronic diseases and increases life expectancy. Similarly, use of the genetically engineered growth hormone BST (bovine somatotropin) to boost milk yields is nonsensical, since not only should people be reducing their consumption of dairy products but in Europe and the USA there is already a glut of milk. Use of the artificial hormone, according to one of the major manufacturers, Monsanto, puts cows "at an increased risk of clinical mastitis [a painful udder infection]". Other side effects include indigestion, bloat, diarrhea, leg and foot problems and anemia.
[Source: Information Sheet supplied by Monsanto to US farmers.]

Human consumers are also at increased risk of contracting breast and gastro-intestinal cancer, according to Samuel Epstein, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Illinois.
[Source: Farmers Weekly, 1996, 26 January, p8]

Biomedical Research:
Another application is to develop new 'animal models' that more closely mimic human illness. Using transgenic and knockout mice, researchers have created animals with neurological disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, severe arterial plaque, sickle-cell anemia, liver damage and many other conditions. But whatever miracles the new technology hopes to perform it cannot transform mice into miniature people, and the results cannot be relied upon. In the case of 'cystic fibrosis mice,' the animals do become ill but
there are differences from the disease in people: most importantly, the animals' lungs do not become infected or blocked with mucous as they do in human patients. It is lung infections that kill 95 per cent of people with cystic fibrosis
[Source: Editorial, Lancet, 1992, September 19, p702-703].

Retinoblastomas are tumors of the developing retina and are reported to arise when a cancer-suppressing gene is disabled in some way. However, when a similar gene is disrupted in mice, the animals do not develop retinal tumors. Robin Holliday of the CSIRO Laboratory for Molecular Biology in
Australia explains that such differences should not surprise since "tumor-suppressor genes and oncogenes [cancer genes] behave very differently in mouse and man."
[Source: Nature, 1992, November 26, p305.]

Transgenic and knockout animals are also being used to test gene therapies. However, the successful incorporation of genes into cells can be studied in the test tube: one therapeutic approach is to remove cells from the human patient, incorporate healthy genes into these cells in a test tube and, finally, return them to the patient, in the hope that the introduced gene s will produce enough healthy cells to remedy the illness. Ultimately, of course, it is clinical, patient-oriented studies that give the most valid results.

Biological 'factories' (transplants/production of biological products):
A further application of genetic engineering is to produce animal organs for transplant purposes. The Cambridge-based, Imutran, is one of the companies now breeding pigs with a human gene in an attempt to create animal organs that will not be rejected so easily during human transplant operations. In the past, cross-species transplants (xenotransplants) always failed because the differences between people and animals are so great. During 1995, reports from Imutran indicated that transgenic pig hearts have been transplanted into macaque monkeys, the average survival time being a mere 40 days. Nevertheless, this is said to exceed expectations, so that human trials are anticipated in the near future. The usual justification for using animal organs is a lack of human donors. One possible solution that
could be investigated is to introduce an opt-out scheme (where organs are presumed to be available after death unless otherwise indicated). The idea of animal-to-human transplants was endorsed by the influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics, so long as certain safeguards and ethical procedures were followed. But, despite the existence of the transgenic pig, the Council saw major problems and dangers. "Even if hyperacute rejection [in which the recipient's immune system rapidly destroys the incoming organ] can be controlled, there will be other immunological barriers to acceptance of the xenograft by the recipient. There may also be biochemical and physiological incompatibilities between pig organs and human beings."
[Source: Animal-to-Human Transplants - the ethics of xenotransplantation.
Nuffield Council on Bioethics, March 1996, p36]

Nuffield pointed to another major problem: "It is not possible to predict or quantify the risk that xenotransplantation will result in the emergence of new human diseases. But in the worst case, the consequences could be far-reaching and difficult to control."
[Source: Nuffield Council report, p116] Nuffield was referring to the fear that animal organs will contain unknown and therefore unscreened-for viruses and other disease organisms that prove deadly to people. There must be similar risks of contamination from animals genetically engineered to produce
pharmaceutical products, such as blood clotting factors, in their milk. Known as 'commercial bioreactors', these animals represent another major business application of genetic engineering. Some carefully-screened biological products can be obtained from human donors, while non-sentient organisms, such as genetically engineered bacteria and cells, could also be used.

Patenting animals:
Much of the storm over genetically engineered animals has focused on the right to patent living creatures. Patenting animals reduces them to the level of inanimate objects - mere 'inventions, to be exploited as deemed necessary. Patenting animals must also encourage more experimentation, since companies have a major incentive to breed and market these creatures before the patent expires. The first animal to be patented, in America during 1988, was Harvard University's 'oncomouse', designed to develop cancer. The patent applied not just to mice but to any non-human mammal with an inserted
oncogene. Although several other transgenic animals have since been patented in the US, the situation in Europe is yet to be finalized. In March 1995, the European Parliament rejected the idea of patenting living things, and whilst it is the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich (together with individual patent offices in member countries) that is actually responsible for the granting of patents, the Parliament's decision is an important ethical lead and a strong signal to the EPO.

The genetics revolution has provided even greater incentives for exploiting animals. But there are also risks for human beings and the environment. For all our sakes, genetics research must be subject to increased and impartial scrutiny. You can find more information on this by going to the following link:

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