A group of international scientists, organized under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in America, have recently completed a map of the genetic code of the common mouse. The study was the project of the NIH’s Trans-NIH Mouse Genomics and Genetics Resources Coordinating Group – an important sounding name for a group of researchers dedicated to learning more about mouse genetics. The research was considered significant enough that the NIH maintains a substantial website (SEE:http://www.nih.gov/science/models/mouse/) just to publish the findings, and publishes a monthly newsletter directed at the “Mouse Genetics Community.”
The fervour for genetic mapping is not new. The Human Genome Project (HGP) of the US Department of Energy has been going strong since 1990, and is expected to complete in 2003. The substantial goals of the “project are to:
Â· identify all the approximate 30,000 genes in human DNA,
Â· determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA,
Â· store this information in databases,
Â· improve tools for data analysis,
Â· transfer related technologies to the private sector, and
Â· address the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) that may arise from the project.
To help achieve these goals, researchers also are studying the genetic makeup of several nonhuman organisms. These include the common human gut bacterium Escherichia coli, the fruit fly, and the laboratory mouse (Human Genome Project, 2002).”
Gene mapping has been researched by other organizations, but the HGP is unique as a demonstration of the
“federal government’s long-standing dedication to the transfer of technology to the private sector. By licensing technologies to private companies and awarding grants for innovative research, the project is catalyzing the multibillion-dollar U.S. biotechnology industry and fostering the development of new medical applications.”
Anyone who even occasionally browses the health and medicine portion of the newspaper, or watches the health portion of the evening news is well aware of what some of these applications are. As the project has progressed, we have been inundated with reports of diseases for which a gene has been located. Not only physical ailments, such as diabetes, but also behavioural conditions such as chronic gambling, alcoholism, and even criminal activity are now thought to reside in our genes. Often we are relieved at the news. The idea that scientists can locate a single faulty gene that influences breast cancer, for example, brings with it the hope that this gene can be repaired and breast cancer averted. Alas, we are not that far along. We cannot fix the genes yet, and therefore the discovery of a breast cancer gene merely implies that for some women, breast cancer may be unavoidable, regardless of other risk factors. This may not be the case, but it is implied.
However, it at least seems plausible that there may be a gene for cancer. We know people who have contracted the disease despite a healthy lifestyle. We are more sceptical, however, at the thought of specific genes causing behavioural disorders, addictions and the like. We should be sceptical. If the government is farming much of this research and its results out to private industry, then it will be the goal of that private industry to locate genes that influence things that we want fixed. The obvious next step is to create pills to treat these genetic abnormalities. There is a massive market to be bled dry. Addictions exist to almost everything – food, drink, drugs, sex, sugar, caffeine, nicotine, the list goes on. If a drug can be marketed to treat addiction, then a massive segment of the population will be lining up – once they skilfully market the stuff to convince us all that we suffer from some addiction or another. Ever wonder if that cookie craving could signal a sugar dependency? You never know…
Why would this happen? Because drugs are one of the biggest businesses in the United States. When drug companies saturate a market with drugs that we need, they the move on to creating need just as all well marketed businesses do. Once Viagra was invented, Erectile Dysfunction became chronic. The commercials tell me that 1 out of 3 men suffer from it. This can only mean that any man who has ever had a single incident of, um, trouser troubles, is suffering from this devastating disorder.
Nowhere have the benefits of good drug marketing been more clear then in the medicalizing of menopause, which we are told must be “?treated’ with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). For women, this means that what was once a natural part of the cycle of life is now a disease. For drug companies, this means that millions of women in the US alone are on daily prescription drugs for the rest of their lives – forty years or more for some.
The HGP claims that the new genome project is the first of its kind to include a mandate to study the social and ethical issues that may arise from its results. How can they assure us of this, however, when private drug and medical companies are being involved in the research – companies that have a financial interest in locating disease causing genes, and in attributing as many ailments as possible to genetic defects. Will some diseases with a legitimate genetic link be overlooked because they do not effect enough people to allow for mass marketing of a drug? These days it is better business to create a drug to treat some vague malaise suffered by most people, than one that will cure a serious illness suffered by only a few. Curing is becoming taboo. There is not much money in it. Treatment, on the other hand, is ongoing and is much more financially rewarding.
The government needs to take steps to avert some of the harm caused by unnecessary drugs. When the drug industry medicalized menopause and started pushing to have all older women on hormone replacement therapy, many doctors knew it was unnecessary, but little was done to counter it. Today, the NIH has stopped a 10-year study on HRT because after 6 years it determined that the risks posed by these drugs made exposing test subjects to them for another 4 years unethical (Dr. Art Hister – SEE:http://canada.medbroadcast.com/hister_on_health/index.shtml?hormone_replacement_therapy.html). How many women have already contracted cancer from this unnecessary treatment- These factors make it somewhat daunting to know that the mouse has finally been mapped. What was the rush? Why has the mapping of the gene become one of the most fervent wishes of the medical community, when there are many illnesses that are not genetically linked? And why is it that the longer the project goes on, the more diseases are discovered to have a genetic link? Have we found a magic code that determines every aspect or our physical and emotional functioning, or just another brilliant marketing tool?
Maybe we have finally built a better mousetrap – but are we the mice?
Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.