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Winding Your Way Through DNA Symposium

San Francisco, California
Saturday Afternoon, September 26, 1992

Introduction by Richard M. Myers, PhD

Richard M. Myers, PhD is associate professor of physiology and of biochemistry and director of the Human Genome Mapping Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

Good afternoon. I'm Rick Meyers, your host for this afternoon's session entitled, "Asking The Tough Questions About DNA Technology." Probably we should call it "Asking Some of The Tough Questions About DNA Technology." We won't get to them all this afternoon.

This afternoon's program tackles the topic on the effects of recombinant DNA technology on society. This DNA revolution has advanced our understanding about ourselves and the biological world at a remarkable rate.

You've heard a lot of the enthusiasm about the promise of DNA technology to better our lives, and you've heard about benefits already available in the form of new drugs, new tests for the diagnosis of genetic diseases, plants that could help feed the world and promises, I think most exciting, for preventive medicine and contraception that Barry Bloom spoke about this morning.

This DNA technology, like any other powerful technology, has the potential to affect large numbers of people and have effects that are both long-lived and global. And, like any new technology, it has the potential to produce both benefits and new, unknown risks for human beings. It is probably because DNA technology has such direct effects on our health that we're so personally interested in understanding its true benefits, its true risks, and how to balance them.

This afternoon we will explore some difficult questions about the best ways to apply recombinant DNA to benefit society, such as, how can we use DNA technology to provide medical benefits without violating our ethical principles and without endangering confidentiality? Can there be governmental guides to this technology to ensure its safety without impeding potentially life-saving progress? Can DNA technology be used to improve our food supply without endangering the ecosphere? Can DNA technology be used in the courts and still maintain our legal principles and civil liberties?

Some, but not all, questions will be raised this afternoon that don't have clear-cut answers. Instead, they require balancing between opposing but equally justified concerns. It's clear that we'll have to make some difficult choices to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions, both at the individual level and the public policy levels. Because we'll all be affected by the results, it's critical that both scientists and the public work together in the process of deciding how this technology can best be used to benefit society.

It's a tenet of democratic societies that good choices can be made only if people are well informed. Scientists have come to recognize more and more that it is critical that we take an active role in helping the public learn the basic facts necessary to understand how science applies to their lives. We realize that we need to not just spend time doing this, but we also need to learn more effective ways to communicate these sometimes difficult facts and concepts. It's clear, I think, from some of the previous talks that we need to learn to avoid jargon; we sometimes slip into it without realizing it. One of the things that has been quite beneficial at UCSF is scientists--students, graduate students, post-docs and professors--working with the local school system have learned a lot about how to communicate by working with the teachers and the students. They've really helped us learn what works and what doesn't.

We hope that the first two sessions of this symposium have helped provide you with some of the background and the basics of DNA technology and its applications so that you can begin to deal with the ethical questions that are posed in this session and in some of the previous sessions.

Now, we have four speakers this afternoon. Neil Holtzman will first discuss problems raised by the ability to predict whether or not someone will develop a genetic disease.

Roger Beachy will discuss issues surrounding the development of genetically engineered agricultural products and their placement in the field.

We'll hear from Don Kennedy, who'll discuss the role the government plays in regulating recombinant DNA technology and its products.

Then Eric Lander will tell us how DNA technology can be used to trace the identity of an individual person, plant or animal. Now, on to our speakers. Victor McKusick, a well-known researcher in human genetic diseases at Johns Hopkins University, lists in his book Mendelian Inheritance of Man over 5500 different inherited diseases, each caused by mutations in one of the 100,000 or so genes that make up our chromosomes. In addition to these so-called "single gene diseases," many of which are relatively rare, common disorders like heart disease, psychiatric diseases, many cancers and many other diseases clearly have a genetic basis and many of these look like they have been caused by defects in more than one gene, or the so-called "multiple gene defects."

If more and more of these genes are identified, the molecular basis of each disease can be understood and we hope and expect the treatment to be devised based on this understanding. However, even before we have cures, having genes in hand immediately provides a way to predict whether a person has already or will develop a particular disease.

What sorts of ethical concerns does this ability to predict the future of a person's health raise? Our first speaker, Neil Holtzman, has considered these issues in more depth than just about anybody. He's been a leader in efforts to determine how to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems in being able to predict genetic diseases. Neil is Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University where he is a scientist, physician and a teacher.

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