Thursday, October 26, 2006

Engineering Human Beings

Human genomeYesterday, October 25, 2006, Profs. Christopher Holman, Kevin Collins, and I presented a panel discussion entitled "Engineering Human Beings" at the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences (APLS) annual conference, in Bloomington, Indiana. Here is a brief summary of what we discussed.

We began by outlining the various existing biotechnologies capable of deliberately altering the bodies or minds of humans. These can be divided into two categories:

(1) Somatic engineering. This involves alterations that last only a single generation, and can be accomplished by such biotechnologies as somatic cell gene therapy, stem cells, cloning (without genetic alteration), RNAi, tissue culturing, and organ transplantation.

(2) Germline engineering. Alterations to germline tissue can be passed on indefinitely to future offspring and descendants, and can be accomplished by such biotechnologies as germline cell gene therapy and cloning (with genetic alternation), and chimaerization (cellular or genetic fusion of different species).

I presented an overview of the existing legal framework (state, federal, and international) for regulating the use of these biotechnologies to alter and control human beings. Prof. Holman provided an incisive analysis of the dual protective and regulatory role patent law can play with respect to genetic technologies. And, Prof. Collins presented an innovative conceptual framework of how intellectual property can be used (and misused) to "proprietize" and control human thought.

After our presentation, we fielded questions from the audience on issues ranging from the role of patents covering genes, organisms, and thought processes in encouraging society to view such things - perhaps inappropriately - as mere property, the relative ethical implications of different human engineering biotechnologies, and legal control of human thought.

The APLS meeting brought together a wide range of fascinating scholars interested in the intersections of biology with the humanities, social sciences, and law. I encourage anyone with scholarly interests in biolaw to consider attending future meetings.

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