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