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Western Press Review: Commentators Hail The 'Book of Life'

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 27 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators are hailing yesterday's announcement that scientists have all but completed their map of the human genetic code, or genome. At a White House ceremony, U.S. President Bill Clinton compared the achievement to Galileo's invention of the telescope to explore space, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was medically more important than the development of antibiotics. Analysts are equally enthusiastic about humanity's new ability to read what they call the "book of life," but warn that much work still lies ahead.


The Wall Street Journal states flatly: "It is no exaggeration to say that the completion of a rough draft of the human genome is one of the great scientific achievements of history." The paper's editorial goes on: "The genome project doesn't deliver miracles in and of itself. But it provides a crude map for the scientists who will set out to discover new cures for cancer and other diseases. The project has provided a rough road map, but the hard work mostly lies ahead. Pursuing it to the fullest advantage will require risk capital and the creative energy that private effort and market competition best engender."

"The implications of this kind of research are of course profound," the paper says. "It will probe a question that has nagged philosophers from pre-Christian Athens through 19th century Berlin to today: To wit, how far can man go in controlling his environment and his own well-being? Armed with the blueprint revealed yesterday," the editorial argues, "scientists might one day find out whether genetically we are predetermined to certain types of development and behavior, or whether our own design can be altered like the design of a house."

The paper sums up: "This is truly big stuff. The idea that man can choose between right and wrong is the foundation of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which buttresses all of Western civilization, which in turn gave us yesterday's accomplishment. For man to find that his decisions may be predetermined or at least limited before he has left the womb, that life really is more deterministic than we'd like to admit, may stand many of our beliefs on their head."


The Washington Post calls yesterday's declaration "a great moment in scientific and medical progress -- not so much the completion of a task [as] the stepping-stone from which new and larger tasks can be launched. For scientists," the editorial continues, "those tasks include nailing down the exact 'spelling' of the 3,100-million-character chain of sub-units that make up the human code; figuring out -- probably over many decades -- how those sequences generate the proteins that control the body's myriad functions; and pinpointing the sources of genetic variation between individuals and, in the case of diseases and disorders, exactly what goes wrong and how."

"Clinicians," the paper adds, "predict a generation of specialized wonder drugs, a leap in the precision of diagnosis, cancer treatments tailored not just to the individual patient but to the individual tumor."


The New York Times says "deciphering the human genome has been likened to discovery of the periodic table of elements, which accelerated chemical research, and to the first detailed description of the human anatomy, which facilitated subsequent advances in medical treatments. Some practical results may come in a matter of years," its editorial continues, "including new drugs already in clinical trials that were derived from the rapidly accumulating knowledge of the genes."

The editorial says further: "Identifying what proteins the genes produce and how these proteins generate their effects in the body will be far harder than simply deciphering the genome. Eminent biologists," it concludes, "describe it as a quest that will occupy their discipline for at least 50 years, if not the next century."


Across the Atlantic, press commentary maintains the same high note about the genetic book of life. The Irish Times writes in an editorial: "The publication of the first, unofficial drafts of the human genome -- spelling out all the detailed instructions for making life -- should be cause for great optimism at the beginning of the 21st century. Leaving aside extremist hype about bringing an end to cancers and aging -- not to mention fears about what might be done with this information in the wrong hands -- the breakthrough matches any of the major scientific discoveries going back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. It ranks," says the paper, "with splitting the atom [and] inventing the printing press."

The editorial goes on: "A revolution in medical science, which will slowly unfold over the coming century, will not come without considerable ethical and philosophical challenges. Few states," it argues, "have in place the kind of legislative safeguards to ensure individuals or sections of the population are not discriminated against based on genetic information likely to be relatively easily available on their disease status or likelihood to succumb to illness. Equally," it says, "commercial demands may undermine much of what has been achieved."

The paper adds: "The French government insisted yesterday that the human genome must remain public property and not be appropriated by anyone for commercial purposes. It is an admirable stance," the editorial says, "but one that will come under increasing pressure as research institutions, and particularly private companies, attempt to recoup colossal investments in genomics."


Britain's Times daily writes: "In pioneer fields like genomics, the risks are large, the time frame long, and the costs high. No one can be sure whether knowing the number and description of all human genes will bring the rewards so widely predicted yesterday. But," the paper continues, "a sufficient number of investors believe that it will for many genome-related companies to have been established, and it is in the interests of all of us that their venture capital should be put at hazard."

"To rely solely on the public purse [that is, government backing]," the editorial argues, "would mean that this new frontier of science would be explored and developed at a far slower pace. [But] if private sector entrepreneurs are to pour money into this vital practical research," it says, "then patent protection is absolutely vital. The counter-arguments are moral as well as practical. The idea of patenting the essence of life itself is offensive to many, even if it is remembered that patents are not for ever."


In the Daily Telegraph, Matt Ridley writes in a commentary: "So you can now download from the Internet the complete instructions for building a typical human being. The completion of the rough draft of the human genome," he says, "is more than just a medical revelation and an ethical earthquake. It is also a milestone in natural philosophy -- a chance to deepen human self-understanding."

Ridley says further: "Until now, we have been like somebody exploring the outside of a cathedral in the dark with a torch. We could see only glimpses of the lowest stones. Now suddenly the floodlights are on. It will take many years to explore, but at least we can see it all. To switch to a more appropriate ecclesiastical metaphor, the human genome is literally a sort of digital text."


The Financial Times' science editor Clive Cookson says the genetic book of life will do no less than, in his phrase, "rewrite existence." In a commentary he writes: "If the human genome project is biology's race to the moon, as some commentators have claimed, then Monday was equivalent to the first lunar landing."

Cookson also writes of what he calls likely "subtle effects on the way we humans think of ourselves. For example," he says, "genomics is revealing an amazingly close similarity at the genetic level between us and all other animals. When this sinks into popular consciousness, it could have a profound impact on people's view of themselves, their relationship to the living world, and the way they treat animals."

"And," the commentator adds, "religion may face a new challenge. Traditional theology has managed to coexist with scientific theories of evolution and cosmology. But if biologists manage to explain in full detail how our bodies and minds work, will they leave any room for a soul or a divine creator?"


The French provincial daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace says the "decoding of the human genome, first of all, provides a lesson in humility: Despite all the knowledge gained in the 20th century, that which remains to be discovered is greater than that already discovered." Its editorial continues: "From now on, man can now modify man -- and that is our new responsibility. This is an area," it sums up, "where politics meets ethics and medicine. Through genetic manipulations -- those allowed or those prohibited -- man's very definition is at stake."