Researchers discuss how, when to use process of 'germline genetic engineering' Method to create changes passed along generations

March 21, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES -- For years, molecular biologists and geneticists have trod gingerly around the most explosive topic of the new reproductive biology: purposely making genetic changes in people that would persist for generation after generation.

There were so many technological roadblocks to the process, called germline genetic engineering, that most scientists viewed almost as science fiction.

But now, as researchers rush past these roadblocks, a group of eminent molecular biologists and molecular geneticists met yesterday on the leafy campus of the University of California at Los Angeles to confront the issue. Their goal was to discuss how, why and when germline engineering should proceed.

The scientists, leaders in the field, were meeting on their own, with no government or other mandate to issue guidelines or regulations and, in fact, no wish to restrict their work. But they said it was time for science to confront its growing powers to shape human biology.

Members of the public and many scientists are unaware of how close science is to making germline engineering a reality, said Dr. Michael Rose, who studies the genetics of aging at the University of California at Irvine and who was a speaker at the meeting. He said the meeting would bring public attention to "one of the most important questions for the human species: the extent to which it will direct its own evolution."

It will, some day, be possible to give people genes to prevent them from developing certain diseases or to cure them of diseases that stubbornly resist treatment, like cancer or AIDS.

"I could imagine a child that never got a cold," said Dr. John Campbell, a meeting organizer who is a theoretical evolutionary biologist and professor of neurobiology at UCLA. Eventually scientists might be able to add whole "cassettes" of genes that ** could confer enhanced intelligence or rid people of the plagues of aging.

Unlike genetic therapies being experimented with today, in which scientists try to insert genes into specific body tissues, these genetic changes could become permanent, present in sperm and egg cells and passed from generation to generation.

Germline genetic engineering "really touches the essence of who we are, what it means to be human," said Dr. Gregory Stock, a conference organizer and director of the Science, Technology and Society program at UCLA's Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life. "We are talking about intervening in the flow of genetic information from one generation to the next. We are talking about the relationship of human beings to their genetic heritage."

The speakers, drawn from the ranks of molecular biology and genetics, had the most august credentials: memberships in the National Academy of Science, a Nobel prize, editorships of leading journals. Throughout the day, one after the other, they spoke about possibilities and powerful tools already under development that could make human germline engineering happen.

No one could say when this kind of genetic engineering might be put into practice. But they all agreed that seemingly insuperable technical barriers were falling year by year and many said they expected to see many techniques in use within 20 years.

For example, Campbell said as recently as 15 years ago that putting a cassette of genes together would have been a #F Herculean task. Now it's a project for graduate students.

Of course, once genetic germline engineering becomes technically feasible, researchers would want to do animal studies to make sure the techniques are safe before trying them in people.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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