GENETICS AND SOCIETY |
By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence
Learn more about the current state of scientific knowledge regarding
genetically inherited diseases at the Science Magazine/National Center for
Biotechnology Information site,
Gene Map of the Human Genome
SAN FRANCISCO (Oct. 31, 1996)
As geneticists zero in on the workings of the human genome and
gene therapy enters clinical testing, the public continues to
regard the field with a combination of fear and mistrust,
according to the president of the American Society of Human
"Progress has been enormous, and we have every reason to be
proud of what we have been able to accomplish in such a
remarkably short time. And yet, we, the genetic researchers and
practitioners find ourselves in a disquieting situation. We
are accused of engaging in too much `hype' about we what we
think we know and are likely to be able to do, and we have been
greeted by a considerable amount of equally if not more
egregious hype from the opposing side," said Charles Epstein,
MD, UCSF professor of pediatrics during his presidential address
at the society's 46th annual meeting.
"Not everyone trusts our motives or intentions, and at the same
time that the public is in awe of what we have already done, it
fears what it thinks we might be able to do," Epstein said.
Epstein heads the Division of Medical Genetics at UCSF and
founded the Medical Genetics Clinic at UCSF in 1967.
Societal fear and mistrust take many forms, he emphasized. It
has surfaced in legislative hearings and in the university
classroom, where genetic testing has been described as "racist,
sexist, insensitive and/or just plain misguided," he said. It
has also led to criticism of gene therapy, which was described
in an NIH committee report last year as being hyped by an
overzealous research community that has raised hopes of cures
"just around the corner," Epstein added.
Public concern has also prompted efforts by the FDA and Congress
to impose overly restrictive government regulations on DNA
research. These include proposed Congressional limits on use
of genetic samples, which, if approved, would have "spelled
serious trouble for genetic research," Epstein said, adding:
"What troubles me is that there is or is starting to be a
breakdown in our ability to engage in rational discourse about
what genetics research is all about. For reasons that have
nothing to do with genetics itself, although they are certainly
grounded in the history of the applications and misapplications
of genetics, there is a movement to proscribe certain areas of
genetic research -- because the findings or, perhaps more
accurately, the potential applications of the findings, are
believed to be so frightening because of the possibilities for
Contrary to public perception, geneticists are concerned about
the social implications of their work, he stressed:.
"But in reacting to these concerns -- our own concerns -- we
are in danger of trying ourselves in knots and embracing
policies and regulations that will only serve to impede the
progress of human genetics without necessarily protecting or
enhancing the public good."
Epstein called on geneticists to be strong advocates for their
profession while not promising too much, not promoting unfounded
fears and working for regulations that balance personal rights
with research and clinical interests.
"While advocating our own position, the human genetics
community must be ever mindful that we do not function in
isolation and have responsibilities that transcend the purely
professional," Epstein said. "We must continue to be and, if
anything, become more involved in the social and ethical
discussion that increasingly surrounds everything that we do.
We need to be cognizant of the fact that we constitute just one
element in the societal debate about the human applications of
genetic knowledge and that the important decisions will
certainly not be ours alone to make."
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