NEWS

Science does not cure all our ills, and genetics poses serious problems people must be aware of

Hordes of remote-controlled clones, genetic discrimination and other horrors arising from rash experiments can all be avoided through transparency and informing people, according to the unswerving conviction of Spyros Simitis, professor of Frankfurt University and, as of last week, honorary professor of the University of Athens’s Law School. In an interview with Kathimerini, he talked of bioethics committees, which in his view bear the heavy responsibility of predicting future scientific developments and are key to protecting people. Professor Simitis is himself the chairman of the German bioethics committee. As far as he is concerned, society is heavily reliant on science, in the belief that scientific advances can solve all our problems. «We lay great stress on discovering our genetic makeup, because it absolves us of the notion that we are products of our environment and our society,» he said. Hope for cures How mature is Greek society today in what it wants? Has it resolved what it seeks and what it rejects in science? Biogenetics is a scientific field that is constantly generating fresh hopes – that we can cure hereditary diseases, intervene in our genetic makeup and change it. These hopes make us interested in developments in biotechnology and contribute to the debate. But they are only hopes. If you persistently question scientists, for example about the therapeutic benefits of cloning, they will say that these are, at the moment, scientifically impossible. Therefore, we are asking for things that have not yet been properly explored, scientifically. What are the dangers of genetic databases, like the one in Britain, which, apart from genetic information, may include data on things like lifestyles? While their primary purpose is to collect genetic data in order to research hereditary disorders and possibly find a cure for them, these databases combine genetic information with facts about the people contributing genetic material, such as their social status, psychological and family problems and generally anything connected with their daily lives. This creates, for each one of these people, an unprecedented profile. We know from experience, from information technology, that the people who created the files are not the only ones to have access; third parties – intelligence services, welfare departments – do as well. Such a database is not acceptable if it has not been ensured beforehand that the data will be used only for the purpose for which they were collected. This is feasible only if there is private material in science, which there isn’t. Is nothing private in science? No. Requests to make information private have been made in the USA and Germany, but the notion has never been accepted anywhere. The state refuses to make scientific information secret, so it can have access to the information that it wants, e.g. to prosecute criminal cases or to formulate a social benefits policy… We are amassing and using personal data to an extent never seen before. There isn’t a single person without a piece of information on him in some file, which will have been created to serve one purpose but, since it exists, can also serve many others. Our laws use a language that is so general that they aid and abet various purposes. In other words, the legal provisions that we have are insufficient; we need others, more clearly worded, which would forbid any change in purpose. DNA patents What is relationship between patents and the commercialization of human DNA? Industry and universities are monopolizing certain research findings by patenting them. However, to grant such patents, they need to have been preceded by an invention. When I analyze the nature of human beings and ascertain their precise genetic makeup, then I’m not inventing anything. Despite this, I slap a patent on it, because I want to be the only one to follow up on the results of my research. But then monopolies are made out of knowledge that is necessary for all of us. Why does society today lean more toward genetic than social factors in examining human beings? Genetic determinism prevails today because it relieves us of any kind of thought, especially thought along the lines of if and to what extent each of us is a product of the environment and society we live in. From the moment that some genetic data necessarily leads to a certain result, we regard it as somewhat to considerably superfluous to think about how things could be corrected or an alternative path be found. One of the consequences of genetic determinism is that discrimination increases. From the moment, for example, that someone has been diagnosed with a predisposition for Huntington’s disease, this person won’t be able to work as before, he will be excluded from work, his insurance premiums will rise, social benefits will change. Predicting genetic diseases will create more discrimination, more small groups of people with a genetic disorder who will remain outside society. I will go further and raise the prospect of a genetic policy, which will try to prevent people with such diseases from being born through genetic examinations. How dependent are people on medicines today? Dependency is ever increasing. Today, depression, a particularly widespread disease, is combated with drugs (e.g. Prozac) which are handed out like aspirin. Nobody, however, asks what the long-term consequences are of such medicines on people and on society. Why is there such dependency? Is it because there is supply? It’s not just the supply. Somebody suffering from depression has serious problems in their daily life. Such medicines give him the impression that he can solve them. But mental disorders have causes that require long-term treatment. However, these treatments are paid for by social insurance and social services, which prefer drugs because they think that they reduce costs. Costs are not reduced, however, except temporarily. Quick fixes What is the hallmark of today’s society? We believe that we can correct everything through science. We believe that in our society, where we have ever more rapid development, where there are greater and greater demands, which contains social dangers like unemployment, we can set things right with some quick fixes, some anti-depressants. We avoid thinking about the causes of the situation in society and how we can help ourselves by discussing them, by analyzing them.