The power of science
With the dawn of any new technology, society has to be wary of the potential for its misuse, especially in the case of powerful technologies that could alter the world as we know it. Epigenetics offers us the potential to reprogramme genomes without genetic modification. This new knowledge underlies cloning technologies and the application of stem-cell based therapies, both of which have been the subject of considerable controversy. But such technologies have great potential for good in the right hands. What's more, European legislation surrounding cloning and human embryonic stem cell research severely restricts the possibilities for misuse.
Brona McVittie reports :: June 2006
Here's what the scientists say
"Research on stem cells could pave the way for the discovery of new therapeutic agents that may cure or even prevent some of the most debilitating human diseases. We all collectively have to decide whether these investigations are justified because very early embryos are needed, at least at present, to create stem cells for research. Should we turn away from a unique opportunity that may revolutionise treatment of diseases, including cancers, or should we approach this question sensitively with the appropriate ethical guidelines where clear rules are established so that we can move forward? Scientists don't have all the answers but without further research, we will never know what medical advances are possible, and which may even make it possible to generate stem cells directly from adult cells without the use of embryos."
Azim Surani (Cambridge, UK)
"I spoke to my hairdresser once about my job when I was working with transgenic frogs. After hearing what I did, she said 'What a shame. You shouldn't be doing this. God created the frog to be the way it is and you shouldn't try to change it'. On the other hand many people believe that human cloning and stem cell research can work wonders. There is no doubt that stem cells have great therapeutic potential. However, we still have some way to go before completely understanding how the genome works."
Irina Stancheva (Edinburgh, UK)
"The long-standing question of nature versus nurture begs the question: to what extent does genetic determination vis-a-vis environment-driven signals affect the development and personal profiles of given individuals? Thanks to epigenetic research, we now know there are mechanisms beyond genetic determinism (there is no 'intelligent design') and that gives us the freedom to live as true individuals. This is best exemplified by genetically identical twins that can develop distinct disease profiles and life projections. Thus, 'we are more than the sum of our genes', and epigenetic research is likely to have significant impact on cultural and ethical values in our 'post-genomic' society."
Thomas Jenuwein (Vienna, Austria)
"You never know where basic research will lead. Einstein predicted that it was possible to make an atom bomb. He didn't like it, but he predicted it was possible and he couldn't stop it once the knowledge was out there. I guess it's our duty as scientists to keep the people informed of what's possible and what's not. But the ultimate decision of how it's used, I'm not sure that's ours; it belongs to society. The problem is that politics and public opinion always lag about 5 years behind on these topics. Formally, every piece of foreign DNA that we stick in any organism whether it is a bacterium or fruit fly, requires a permit."
Bas van Steensel (Amsterdam, Netherlands)