Genetic engineering – Unethical or welcomed?

Published: December 3, 2014
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Genetic modification or engineering is metaphorically not much different than transplant surgery. Instead of the organ, you manipulate the genomic sequence.

A scalpel has the power to kill a human being who lies helplessly on the table in an operation room. However, that very scalpel can also save that person. It all depends on the surgeon whose hand the scalpel is in; he can choose to either use it to save a patient’s life or just end it with a few wrong cuts.

This idea applies to every other technology or tool. It depends on you, whether you choose to use it or abuse it.

For me, genetic engineering is a technology that should get immediate support and advancement from today’s community. It is a field vastly misconceived as just a novel technology that is used to mimic God’s work and perfect human beings and their flaws. The whole procedure is accused to be “unnatural” and “wrong”. The entire perception of this technology has been skewed because it alters the genetic makeup of naturally existing species.

What people fail to perceive is that this is not some Frankenstein syndrome here to stay. It is a technology that can not only be used to protect the agriculture industry but also to enhance medicine to a level where hereditary diseases can more or less be prevented from occurring in patients as well as their offspring.

Diabetes mellitus, for example, is a common disease related to high blood glucose which, if untreated, can be fatal. It needs a protein called insulin that consists of 51 amino acids. There are many animals that have insulin which is very similar to human insulin, but more often than not, one or two amino acids differ. The function is rather similar but it is likely that since the human immune system is quite sensitive, it can detect the difference and make the person resistant to animal insulin leaving it to be ineffective.

This is where the so called “unethical” and “controversial” genetic engineering swoops in and saves the day. City of Hope Medical Centre in California and biologist Keiichi Itakura took the initiative and produced synthetic human insulin which is manufactured via recombinant DNA technology. This human insulin can then be used for the treatment of diabetic patients accordingly.

Some tomatoes and bananas have been genetically modified to contain the hepatitis B vaccine. This vaccine is capable of making our bodies immune to the virus that causes high fever and potentially cancer. After inserting a single gene inside these fruits, they express the protein a thousand times over and after exposing itself to the bloodstream, it induces the immune system to produce antibodies against the hepatitis B virus. Hence, it works in a more effective and economically friendly way than a conventionally injected vaccine. World Health Organisation (WHO) has advocated this to be a practice in countries without immunisation of Hepatitis B Virus (HBV).

On a lighter note, University of Wyoming, USA,  introduced the gene of silk production from a golden orb spider into female goats who were able to produce one of the strongest material through their milk, which is known to be even stronger than steel. The problem encountered before this facility was that the spiders were unable to produce sufficient quantities of this high-tech silk, but now due to this genetic modification, Professor Lewis and his team at the university extracted around four meters of silk with just four drops of protein they collected from the goat’s milk. This silk can be utilised for procedures such as restructuring jaws, forming ligaments and tendons; it has the potential of blowing open a whole new dimension of medicine.

Genetic modification or engineering is metaphorically not much different than transplant surgery. You cut open an area of the organ, remove it and replace it with a new functional one; this will provide the needed purpose and keep the patient healthy. The difference is that instead of the organ, you manipulate the genomic sequence. I agree this can be carried forward to future generations but if availed wisely, an improved and a healthier gene will be passed on.

Let’s look at it this way – you want to marry a person you love but you can’t because he/she has a family history of genetic disorders. So are you just blatantly going to give up? If it were older times, you wouldn’t have even known about the genetic disorder and that would’ve resulted in genetically disordered offspring. But now, there have been recent clinical successes in gene therapy, which can be used to treat diseases like chronic lymph leukaemia, Parkinson’s disease and the likes. And it’s not just limited to genetic diseases; we can treat cardiovascular diseases and cancer as well.

If our society has slowly yet gradually accepted cosmetic surgery – which risks a great deal of side effects – then it shouldn’t be a faith-altering decision to support a technology that is only trying to better human medicine and promote a healthier line of food products.

Every technology comes with an easier future in mind; however, many people still tend to abuse it, like nuclear power was abused in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. But that same nuclear power can be used to create heat and electricity for developing countries of the world.  We should not keep ourselves closed off to technological advantages, which can offer a great deal of benefits to nature as well as offer people a chance to enhance their health and longevity.

Genetic engineering, therefore, should be endlessly exhausted for its benefits. This technology is here to stay and can improve our future in unthinkable ways; it has so much potential that it does not deserve to be neglected because of some taboo supposedly associated with it.

This blog originally appeared here.

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Momal Taimoor

Momal Taimoor

She has recently graduated with a BSc (Hons) in biotechnology from University of Nottingham in Malaysia and is currently working at Interactive Research and Development as a research associate. She tweets as @Momalt (twitter.com/Momalt?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.