James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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The outlook for Dolly is far from jolly

THERE is an inescapable impression that the momentum of genetic research is now unstoppable. To quote Sir Walter Bodmer, "one of Britain’s most distinguished geneticists", in this paper last week: "There simply is no other field of medical research which has anything like the same promise… there can be no doubt of its enormous benefit to mankind."

We might not like the sound of what they are up to, but in a week that has featured Dolly, the first cloned sheep, and warnings from insurance companies that anyone with "dud" genes can expect only limited cover, it looks as if we are just going to have to adapt to this Brave New World.

But it’s all eyewash. Despite the billions of pounds that have been spent over the past decade, genetics is stuck up the proverbial gumtree. Indeed, it is precisely because genetic research has failed to deliver the goods that the hype surrounding it is so intense. The bubble of inflated claims is ready to burst.

Let us start with Dolly. In the science journal Nature this week, Dr Ron James, managing director of a commercial company, BPL Therapeutics, describes how he inserted the nucleus (which contains the genetic material) of a cell taken from the mammary gland of sheep A into an unfertilised egg (whose nucleus had been removed) of sheep B and then implanted it in the womb of a foster mother, sheep C, to produce Dolly, a clone with the same genetic make-up as sheep A. This experiment, says Dr James, "opens up the possibilities of new treatment for cancer [of course] and inflammation… it will enable us to study genetic diseases for which there is presently no cure".

This certainly sounds impressive, even if it is not at all clear how cloning a sheep will produce a treatment for cancer, but Dr James’s experiment rang a few bells from my time as a medical student in Cambridge. I headed off to the library and within a few minutes found what I was looking for: a report of precisely the same experiment performed on frogs by two doctors from the department of Zoology in Oxford, in a copy of Nature from December 1970.

Now when scientists claim as a major breakthrough the results of an experiment that has already been performed more than a quarter of a century ago – albeit in a different species – one can only presume that genetic research is going nowhere fast. Indeed, Dr James’s experiment merely confirms what we already know: the multiple potential of the genes in each of the billion billion cells in a sheep’s (or, indeed, a human’s) body. But it is one thing to know that our genes have this potential, quite another to understand how they achieve it – and that, not surprisingly, has turned out to be rather elusive.

What has changed in the past 25 years is that scientists now know the chemical code of some of these genes, but the practical application of this knowledge is very limited. The simplest option would be to do something about the 4,000, mostly extremely rare, diseases due to a defect in a single gene – such as Huntingdon’s chorea or cystic fibrosis.

It was hoped at one time that the dud gene could be readily identified, allowing the unfortunate victim to be "electively aborted", but it has not turned out like that. There may be up to 250 abnormalities in the one gene that can all give rise to the same disease and, as logistically it has proved impossible to test for each and every one of these, the aspiration to identify and eliminate the less-than-perfect has proved something of a mirage.

The alternative option is "gene therapy" – removing the abnormal gene from a cell and replacing it with a normal one. The genetic code, when fully spelt out, will run to over 2,000 volumes, so for gene therapy to work, it will be necessary, as it were, to find the one page with the genetic misprint, tear it out, and replace it with a corrected page.

It can’t be done. Two hundred trials of gene therapy over the past decade have, according to a report from the National Institute of Health in 1995, which has sponsored them to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a year, resulted in "no evidence of therapeutic benefit to patients – or even animal models".

If this is the situation with the rare single gene defects, what is the hope of influencing much commoner diseases such as schizophrenia or arthritis? Certainly, many of these illnesses do have a genetic component, but the subtle interaction of many separate genes is involved. The notion that those at risk can be readily identified and aborted, or treated with gene therapy, is a fantasy.

This false portrayal of the possibilities of genetic research adversely influences society’s moral tone, as scientists send out the message that traditional moral perspectives are outdated because we have moved into an new era in which man can control his destiny. But like the tale of the Emperor’s clothes, the proposed benefits of genetics are illusory. The sooner this is realised, the better, as it will re-allocate moral arguments back to their appropriate place – not the sterile world of scientific determinism, but within the broad, rich stream of our common cultural heritage.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd