Biotechnology Developments

April 3, 1987

Report Outline
Special Focus


In the past year, scientists have discovered several needles in the human genetic haystack. Among hundreds of thousands of genes that make up the human genetic code, scientists last year pinpointed those linked with several inherited diseases, including Alzheimer's, a degenerative neurological disease that mainly afflicts the elderly. The findings are significant because they will improve our understanding about how these diseases develop, possibly pointing the way to better therapies. In the meantime, however, the discoveries raise some sticky issues. Should individuals be automatically informed of test results that show they are carriers of these genes? Should life and health insurance companies be informed of the test results?.

In 1986, a genetically engineered human growth hormone, used to treat dwarfism in children, became available in reliable supply for the first time and in purer form than ever before. Using recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) techniques—in which genes are snipped out of one DNA molecule and spliced into another, thus altering an organism's genetic code—the South San Francisco, Calif., biotechnology company, Genentech Inc., genetically altered bacteria so that they would produce human growth hormone. Now with a potentially unlimited stock of the hormone, who should be permitted to use it? Should treatment be available to any child to boost height for social or athletic reasons.?

By late April, the first field test of a microbe genetically altered to prevent frost formation on crop plants may finally get under way. The experiment, if it proceeds, would culminate a lengthy controversy that pitted California citizens and anti-biotechnology activist Jeremy Rifkin against the manufacturer of the microbe, scientists and the federal government. The episode illustrates the continuing debate over the safety of outdoor experiments involving genetically engineered organisms.

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