WFS logo

Permanent Monitoring Panel -
Biotechnology


Members of the Panel

Chairman:
Oleg Jardetzky (Structural Biology, Stanford, USA)

Members:
Adriano Aguzzi (Pathology, Zürich, Switzerland)
Giovanni Levi (Molecular Biology, Genova, Italy)
Benno Müller-Hill (Molecular Genetics, Köln, Germany)
David Schlessinger (Molecular Genetics, NIH, Baltimore, USA)

Associate Members:
Richard Braun (Biochemistry, Bern, Switzerland)
Bernardino Ghetti (Neuropathology, Indianapolis, USA)
Mark Hughes (Molecular Genetics, Medicine, Wayne State, USA)

(Associate Panel Members are a community of scientists who provide support and expertise for the working of the Permanent Monitoring Panel.)


Mandate

To monitor existing and new biological and genetic engineering technologies and identify the ethical, economic and political issues arising from them. To provide an early warning system for potential dangers and abuses and recommend guidelines and regulatory measures if necessary.


Priorities in dealing with the Emergency

Central Issues

  1. Prenatal and presymptomatic genetic diagnosis, genetic intervention and fertility control.

  2. Plant biotechnology and its implications for human health and biological warfare.

  3. Biotechnology of microbial genomes and its potential use in biological warfare and bio-terrorism.

  4. Public and economic control of biotechnology research.

Other issues to be borne in mind and considered if necessary:

  1. Cloning

  2. Gene therapy

  3. Genetic control of aging

  4. Animal husbandry

 


Workshop and Meeting Reports

Report of the Biotechnology Monitoring Panel Meeting

August 18/19 1999, Erice, Sicily

The Human Genome Project and associated developments in biotechnology are now clearly the driving force for biological research for the next century and offer significant promise for novel applications in medicine. A full catalogue of human genes will be available in the coming years, along with techniques to study their variation and changes in disease and disorders. The Biotechnology Monitoring Panel session on August 18-19 1999 entitled "Fertility Problems: Technological and Ethical Issues" considered some of the issues raised by these developments. The session included several discussions of "what is possible".

Dr. Mark Hughes surveyed the current approaches and prospects for molecular diagnosis of human disease in the prenatal period. This has progressed technically to where it is now possible to test for genetic disease even before pregnancy begins. Analysis of a single cell biopsied microscopically from the human in vitro fertilised (IVF) embryo allows serious inherited disease to be identified and avoided by transferring to the uterus only embryos shown to be healthy. This provides a couple who are genetically at-risk with the ability to have a healthy child while avoiding conventional prenatal testing (e.g. amniocentesis) and the possibility of choosing an abortion. Relevant biotechnology now permits routine, efficient and highly reliable testing of DNA and RNA in a single cell. Multiple genetic loci can be examined from one cell in several ways. For example, "gene chips" containing microarrays of thousands of human DNA sequences that sample corresponding genes provide a platform to study the sequence of genes or the level of expression of those genes. Scientific insight into normal and abnormal early developmental biology can therefore be assessed in parallel for thousands of genes. This technology shows the promise of better understanding and ultimate avoidance of numerous serious birth defects and pregnancy loss (miscarriage). In turn, these technologies offer new options for individual human reproduction at the same time raising important ethical questions that deserve continued reflection and scientific discourse.

Drs. David Schlessinger and Antonino Forabosco extended the discussion of current technology to a particular example of the use of genomic approaches to analyse "premature ovarian failure" (POF). This condition which affects about 2% of women, arises when eggs and follicles are too few in the adult female to sustain a full reproductive life-span. As a result, the women undergo early menopause, by the mid-30s, rather than the usual age of 50. In such women, follicle formation begins normally, but there is excessive attrition and, at birth, when a normal female infant has the full complement of follicles for her lifetime, POF women have too few.

Human genetics and genomic approaches were exemplified in the study of women with inherited POF. Positional cloning was used to find the genes affected in these instances, providing an entrée to study the process. A more extensive "developmental genomic" approach was also outlined, which uses the mouse genetic system and analyses of gene cohorts on "chips" (see above) to initiate the determination of the time, place and extent of gene expression throughout embryonic and fetal life, with special attention to placental and ovarian formation and function.

The sum of these technologies can provide diagnostic and therapeutic tools of enormous potential value - for example, for the early detection of POF before a woman has lost childbearing potential, for the assessment of fetal wellbeing, and for the improved treatment of premature infants.

Two presentations were devoted to some of the range of bioethical concerns about the use of the new technologies and the information derived from their use.

Professor Angelo Serra provided reflections on 'Assisted Reproductive Technologies'. He introduced an examination of human and social aspects related to creating children and building families, including:

1) a review of the response by science to the request to produce a child with the corresponding differences of viewpoint about the acceptability of the manipulation of embryos and the discarding of 'unused' embryos;

2) the response of medicine to the request for a 'healthy baby' with the further bioethical problems resulting from the use of procedures that still often fail;

3) the response of society, ranging from great permissiveness of technological applications by choice, to very great caution and limitations for those who, like religious Catholics, are not comfortable with "individual rights" and retain a vision of the dependence of society on children brought into families through a natural act of love.

Dr. Demetrio Neri continued the discussion of IVF technology in relation to "women's rights". He also emphasized the wide spectrum of views, including the variety of feminist discourses that range from enthusiasm for "liberation from the tyranny of reproductive biology" to a negative assessment of new technology as a way to perpetuate male domination and to approaches based on the satisfaction of women's interests rather than abstract rights. He then explored further two general approaches to bioethical concerns about IVF: "child-oriented" versus "the right to have a child". Because these can conflict, difficulties result in balancing the two views with regulations and legislation. He suggested that some helpful guidance could be based on the so-called "ethics of care", with attention to the principle of procreative responsibility and concern.

In spite of the variety of views that were presented, there was some degree of consensus in the ensuing discussion that continued increases in sensitivity and in the reliability of technological approaches could help to provide progress in alleviating ethical concerns. Thus, it was noted, for example that the acceptance of Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer (GIFT) procedures by the Catholic Church could, in principle, be extended to other IVF procedures if a single viable zygote could be created with great certainty, alleviating the issue of discard. The possibility of approaching this goal through the genomic and genetic study of mouse and primate reproduction and development was also pointed out. Thus, the notion was fielded that better technology might remedy some bioethical problems associated with the current technology.

In a final, cautionary discussion of what can happen when a particular political or social regime adopts a program based on a failure of ethics (and even worse, when coupled with bad science), Dr. Benno Müller-Hill reflected on a still-unresolved feature of the notorious "technology and medicine" experiments of the Nazi regime. Even 50 years later, a recent colloquium, organised by the Max Planck Institute for the history of science came to no conclusion about the degree of involvement in the atrocities of a member of the laboratory of Dr. F. Butenandt (at Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute, forerunner of the Max Planck Institutes). Thus, further historical analyses will be required to clarify the matter, based on the remaining critical papers of Dr. Butenandt which are currently closed to public inspection until the year 2025 by an agreement with his family. Clarification is necessary to fully understand the circumstances that can lead to unethical applications of biological and medical technology, and to avoid the pitfalls of social mechanisms that can lead to comparable abuse in the future.


Focus

Primary Topics 1998-99

1. Fertility problems - technological and ethical issues

2. Social implications of biotechnology and genetic engineering

3. Social control of biotechnology and genetic engineering

 

PRIMARY TOPICS 1999-2000

1. Plant biotechnology and its potential use in human medicine (immunization and other acquired characteristics)

2. Public and economic control of biotechnology research