NextMichael Crichton finished his novel Next in 2006.  The novel explores the ethics of bio-engineering, genetic research, and the use of human tissue.  I don’t know what has happened in this area since 2006.  I suspect that the issues Crichton raised are still unsettled.  The book is typical Crichton so I’m not going to say much about the novel.  Instead I would like to discuss the Author’s Note that describes some of Crichton’s conclusions.

1.  Stop Patenting Genes.

The first conclusion describes a point of law that I had not been aware of but that makes sense to me.

. . . genes are facts of nature.  Like gravity, sunlight, and leaves on trees, genes exist in the natural world.  Facts on nature can’t be owned.  You can own a test for a gene, or a drug that affects a gene, but not the gene itself.  You can own a treatment for a disease, but not the disease itself.  Gene patents break that fundamental rule.  [emphasis is mine]  Of course one can argue about what’s a fact of nature, and there are people paid to do that.  But here’s a simple test.  If something exists for a million years before the arrival of Homo Sapiens on earth, it’s a fact of nature.  To argue that a gene is in any way a human invention is absurd.

Consequences of gene patenting?

. . . research on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was inhibited because scientists were unsure who owned the genome – three simultaneous patent claims had been filed.  As a result, research on SARS wasn’t as vigorous as it might have been. That should scare every sensible person.  Here was a contagious disease with a 10 percent death rate that had spread to two dozen countries around the world.  Yet scientific research to combat the disease was inhibited – because of patent fears.

2.  Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues.

Historically, the courts have decided questions about human tissues based on existing property law.  In general, they have rules that once your tissue leaves your body, you no longer maintain any rights to it.

The notion that once you part with your tissue you no longer have any rights is absurd.  Consider this:  Under present law, if somebody takes my picture, I have rights forever in the use of that photo.  Twenty years later, if somebody published it or puts it in an advertisement, I still have rights.  But if somebody takes my tissue – part of my physical body – I have no rights.  This means I have more rights over my image that I have over the actual tissues of my body.

3.  Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public.

New legislation is needed if the FDA is to publish adverse results from gene therapy trials.  At the moment, it cannot do so.  In the past, some researchers have tried to prevent the reporting of patient deaths, claiming that such deaths were a trade secret.

. . .

Review studies conducted by those who have a financial or other interest in the outcome are not reliable because they are inherently biased.  That fact should be addressed by an information system that does not permit biased testing, and takes steps to ensure that it does not occur.  Yet gross bias remains far too common in medicine, and in certain other areas of high-stakes science as well.

4.  Avoid bans on research.

Bans can’t be enforced.

5.  Rescind the Bayh-Dole Act.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 permits

university researchers to sell their discoveries for their own profit, even when that research has been funded by taxpayer money.

As a result of this legislation, most science professors now have corporate ties – either to companies they have started or to other biotech companies. . .   Thirty years ago, disinterested scientists were available to discuss any subject affecting the public.  Now scientists have personal interests that influence their judgement.

Secrecy now pervades research, and hampers medical progress.  Universities that once provided a scholarly haven from the world are now commercialised – and the haven is gone.  Scientists who once felt a humanitarian calling have become businessmen concerned with profit and loss.  The life of the mind is a notion as quaint as the whalebone corset.



The Year Of the Flood

The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy #2)Margaret Atwood has written three books about a dystopian future. The time seems to be around 2050. Atwood does not directly state when the novels take place. She writes in The Year Of the Flood that the action is taking place two centuries after Sojourner Truth worked on the Underground Railway. Assuming that the Underground Railway only existed until – at the latest – 1865, that puts the action of The Year Of the Flood around 2060.  And the Martha Graham School is “an artistic school named after a famous ancient [emphasis mine] dancer”.

Atwood writes about a world where the big corporations rule, the armed forces of the U.S. have been privatized, whatever law enforcement exists is provided by a corporation that provides security to other corporations – CorpSeCorps.  Society has continued to degrade the environment.  Species extinction is rampant.  People routinely have to wear nose masks because the air is so foul, and this is the U.S. (or somewhere in North America.  Atwood is Canadian.), not China.

Atwood’s other two books about the same period are Oryx and  Crake and the recently published MaddAddam.  I have only read The Year Of the Flood, but I now plan on reading the other two.  I need to know what happens to the characters from The Year Of the Flood.

I fear that we are heading toward the future painted by Atwood.  Our government seems increasingly dysfunctional.  Both major political parties kowtow to the big corporations.  Politicians are unwilling to do anything about climate change for fear of cutting into the bottom lines of big business.  The will of the people seems irrelevant.  Consider gun control.  The last time any type of gun control came up in Congress it seemed benign and was favored by a vast majority of the American public.  But  Congress defeated it.  Why?  Because of the power of the NRA which is increasingly a complete captive of the companies that manufacture guns.

I think Margaret Atwood is very prescient.  I can only hope that she is wrong.

Here are what I found the most interesting lines in The Year Of the Flood.

Still, why didn’t the CorpSeCorps move in openly, blitz their opponents right in plain view, and impose overt totalitarian rule, since they were the only ones with weapons?  [Interesting that big business, not government, removed firearms from the people]  They were even running the army, now that it had been privatized.

. . . they were a private Corporation Security Corps employed by the brand-name Corporations , and those Corporations still wanted to be perceived as honest and trustworthy [puts me in mind of Exxon-Mobile], friendly as daisies, guileless as bunnies.  They couldn’t afford to be viewed by the average consumer as lying, heartless, tyrannical butchers.

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