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Biotechnology and Bioethics:
Prof. S. B. Sullia
Emeritus Professor, Department of Biotechnology, Bangalore University, Bangalore, India

Bioethics deals with morals and codes of conduct in the human society, in areas of biosciences and medical and food sciences, based on past cultural, religious and contemporary societal values. Modern biotechnology enables us to alter or modify any living organism’s behavior. The amazing power of this technology is the source of certain ethical concerns or issues. Largely, bioethical issues or concerns are local or regional and some are universal in nature. The social, cultural and religious background of that society heavily influences ethical behavior, conduct, or values in any society.

Bioethics is a subject that is occupies the center stage of quite a few public policy debates about what kinds of biotechnologies must be promoted or stopped. Bioethics is now a matter of curriculum of in most university and collegiate education in biotechnology. In the context of modern agricultural biotechnology, the first generation of products that have been commercialized are Genetically Modified (GM) crops. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism that is inserted with a new gene coding for a new trait. Unlike hybridization, genetic engineering does not require sexual reproduction, and can jump species, genus or even kingdom barriers. GMOs include microorganisms, plants and animals referred to as transgenic organisms, or living modified organisms (LMOs). Since it takes human intervention to introduce a new gene, and does not happen naturally, that work by and in itself is considered “unnatural”, and therefore “unethical”. There are some who question appropriating biology for private gains through commercialization when they believe that all natural living organisms are God’s creation, and that no one should be allowed to make pecuniary gains from “God’s” gift to humanity. Living, dead, or extinct organisms are considered common heritage of the entire humankind. Any scientist who tries to alter the living organisms is playing God, and therefore, should be abjured. This is an argument in the extreme.

Some of the basic issues of GMOs are:



Are they safe?
Are foods produced from GMOs with genes transferred from certain animals that do not have religious sanction in some religions acceptable?
Is GM food labeling an ethical issue?
Is patenting life forms or their components ethical?
Is altering the basic molecule DNA is itself ethical?
Is altering animals at the gene level and using them as bio-factories ethical?
Is it ethical to intervene at the genetic level to abort seed germination capacity? The use of Genetic Users Restriction Technologies (GURTs) is notoriously dubbed the “terminator technology”.
Food from GM Animals, Plants and Microorganisms (The GM Food)

There are the following fears with regard to gene food.

Meat from sheep transformed with pig genes may be unacceptable to Muslims and Jews.
Frost tolerance gene from Arctic flounder fish inserted into strawberry, sugar beet, tomato and potato may be unacceptable to vegetarians and vegans.
Rat genes introduced to lettuce to increase vitamin C, may not appeal to vegetarians.
Some church groups are against any kind of GMO, as they think it is unnatural.
Meat from GM cows fed with growth hormone (BST) may be unsafe!
FBAE believes the GM food is in no way different from non-GM products, but proper testing for its safety is necessary before release. Opinions with regard to labeling of GM food differ, and FBAE believes in the concept of “truth in labeling” to inform consumers of its composition, nutritional values and any contra-indications of safety. Labeling to make it arouse political and ideological passions is not acceptable. Purveying untested and unsafe GM food is unethical. Introducing DNA from prohibited animals (for religious reasons), can be unethical. Scientifically speaking DNA is DNA no matter where it comes from, but to respect dietary habits of the people and religious sentiments, FABE strongly pleads for more public discussions on this issue.
Concerns regarding genetic modification of animals:

Animals are genetically modified for the following purposes:
To obtain genetically uniform animals for experimentation and for use in industrial purposes.
To use them as models for human experiments, e.g. onco-mouse,
To improve meat and milk production,
To produce medically important human proteins through milk,
To mass produce vaccines with uniform quality, and
To produce disease resistant animals.
There are people who argue on the following lines:

Animal modification is unnatural.
Using animals for experiments is cruelty to animals, and hence not ethical.
Using animals for experiments is infringement of animal rights.
FBAE is of the opinion that wherever possible, animal cell lines, tissue and organ cultures, embryos, larvae, or even microbes can replace whole animals. As far as animal rights are considered, the concept is a matter of opinion and debate. Where it is inevitable, the use of animals for experimental purposes can be used, so that science will advance and benefit society. It is essential however to find means to prevent cruelty to test animals in the process, by following rigid scientific protocols under supervision. FBAE strongly supports a laboratory code of ethical conduct by scientists to make sure that the experimental animals are treated humanely, and cared by using highest standards of good laboratory practice.
Concerns regarding loss of biodiversity

Bio-prospecting is the process of exploring biodiversity for finding new plants, animals, and microbes for potential beneficial purposes. The ethical concern is that bio-prospecting today has become commercial, and patent oriented, and in general exploitative. However, most countries have banned patenting of naturally occurring life forms, and it is better that all the countries follow this kind of approach. With regard to plants and microbes that have undergone genetic modification through human intervention, there is still some debate. There is also the fear that GM organisms will reduce natural biodiversity. This is not a scientifically tenable argument.
Concerns regarding human genome sequence data and genetic information

There are several concerns regarding our acquired knowledge on human genome sequences and their functions. Some of the interesting questions asked are:





Is patenting of partial gene sequences the ‘expressed sequence tags’ (ESTs) ethical when the genes were not created by scientists?
DNA flaws in an individual can be detected long before the person gets the disease; when there is no cure will it not socially stigmatize the person, and cause anxiety.
Will it be possible to obtain a truly informed consent from a patient?
Are there sufficient safeguards to keep genetic information private?
Will there be pressure on parents to abort fetuses with defective genes?
Will genetic information disrupt family relations?
Will genetic information be used to discriminate those seeking jobs, insurance, or migration?
Will genetic information be required for marriages?
As far as the above questions are concerned, we still do not have clear answers, and
FBAE is strongly in favor of public debates in various forums to evolve a consensus.
Gene therapy

In gene therapy, defective genes that lead to genetic diseases are replaced with
correct alleles. In somatic cell gene therapy, specific cells of the body that are defective are treated, e.g., adenosine deaminase (ADA) gene therapy. In germline gene therapy, gene is inserted to sperm or egg; during reproduction, the gene is transferred to all cells of the offspring.

Germline gene therapy is not accepted by the some ethicists, whereas there is no
serious objection to somatic gene therapy. FBAE is strongly in favor of both germline and somatic gene therapies provided they alleviate human suffering.

Genetic testing and prenatal screening

Genetic testing is useful for conditions like familial breast cancer, and prenatal and neonatal disorders. The following issues need to be addressed:

Details about the disorder, its inheritance patterns, reliability of the test, etc.
Well informed consent
Confidentiality of results
Question of informing partners & family
Risk of stigmatization or discrimination of the individual
Prenatal screening for the termination of female embryos (feticide is a major concern in India.) This goes against all ethics. However, screening can be used to terminate fetuses with sex linked genetic defects. Genetic counseling is needed before taking such decisions.
Cloning of animals including humans

The first experiment on animal cloning (the ‘Cloning of Dolly the sheep’), at the Scotland Labs Biotech. In addition, Roslyn Institute, elicited loud reactions.

Some ethical concerns are:


Cloning is “tampering” with nature.
It is detrimental to animal diversity.
Clones are genetically uniform and can become vulnerable to epidemics.
It is unnatural self-reproduction or propagation.
Who will own the defective clones?
Is the cloned embryo same as conceived one?
Does a clone have parents, autonomy, or soul?
How does a clone fit into a family?
Can cloned children choose their own destiny?
Are designer babies not denied an open future?
If humans ‘make’ babies rather than ‘have’ babies, are they playing God?
FBAE feels that these are highly contentious issues and public needs to be informed about them to create awareness. FBAE is strongly in favor of public debates to assess the majority public opinion on each of the above issues.
Stem cell research

There are two kinds of stem cells, embryonic stem cells and somatic stem cells. There is considerable debate about the use of embryonic stem cells, and US government has banned research in stem cells. India is now very active in stem cell research and therefore, calls for some serious introspection on the ethics of stem cell research. Stem cells are useful in the following aspects:

They are used in the repair of damaged heart muscles, bone tissues, skin tissues and brain cells.
They are useful in ‘Gene therapy’.
They can be used as models for understanding cellular mechanisms.
The contentious issues are:

Patenting of stem cell research,
Lack of donor screening for infectious diseases and hereditary defects.
In the area of stem cell research, FBAE is of the opinion that this young branch of
biotechnology should be allowed to progress, and contentious issues, if any can be resolved through public dialogue. FBAE is a strong advocate of public awareness programs in this area, and would like to see many public debates to set priorities for stem cell research. FBAE is not for banning stem cell research.

Microbes or their products may be misused as biological weapons. Some examples are:

Botulinum or anthrax toxins in chemical form, to be used as poisons,
Germs causing botulism, anthrax, cholera, plague, small pox etc. to spread infection in human populations,
Virulent plant pathogens, to cause destruction of crops, and
Germs like anthrax, FMDV to destroy domestic animals.
Dual use of organisms.

FBAE is very clear about the above issue. Use of microbes, or any living forms, for causing destruction and terrorism is not acceptable under any circumstance. FBAE does not support bio-warfare in any shape. FBAE wants governments to be open and transparent about bio-warfare research. FBAE does not approve of any state secrecy in this area of biotechnology.

FBAE strongly believes that not using or denying any of the available technological tools that can benefit human beings, animals, and protect the environment should be the greatest ethical blunder of them all.