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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 15:02 GMT


The future of genetic engineering

The creation of Dolly has raised many important issues

Donald Bruce: Public concerns cannot simply be dismissed as irrational
There should be a statutory commission to watch over developments in genetic engineering in animals and crops, according to a group of leading scientists and thinkers.

They have produced a report - commissioned by the Church of Scotland - which examines some of the most controversial issues connected with this important new technology.

The group have put their findings in a book, published on Tuesday, called Engineering Genesis. It includes a contribution from Ian Wilmut, the man whose Edinburgh team cloned Dolly the Sheep.

Fast forward

They believe science is moving forward without, sometimes, taking sufficient account of public opinion.

[ image: Engineering Genesis: Published by Earthscan Publications]
Engineering Genesis: Published by Earthscan Publications
"Our study found a lot of reason for concern about a lack of public accountability when the committees, or the European Commission or commercial companies' boardrooms that decide these things - effectively, you and I have very little say," said Dr Donald Bruce who chaired the Church of Scotland's Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRT)

"We say we need some overarching body charged with looking, not just at whether it is safe or whether it is working, but the ethical values underneath - and it should have some public involvement."

Dr Bruce quoted the example of genetically modified soya which he said had been grown and introduced into the food supply with hardly any public consultation.

Current consensus

The SRT - which included the opinions of scientists, leading thinkers in ethics, sociology, animal welfare and risk - assessed current and future prospects for genetic engineering and tried to reach a consensus on the desirability of some of the more controversial developments.

They felt that:

  • genetic engineering was not wrong in itself
  • genetically modified food must be labelled
  • the technology of cloning was not wrong in itself
  • using animals to produce pharmaceuticals in their milk was acceptable
  • some patenting of genes and genetic research was also acceptable
  • there should always be some assessment of the risks associated with the technology
But the SRT felt the use of pig organs in transplants and the use of lab mice engineered to die from cancer posed real dilemmas. The group said the medical benefits that stem from such research must be overwhelming to justify using animals in such a way.

"Mice must not become mere research tools, sheep mere bioreactors, nor pigs spare-part factories," they said.

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Internet Links

Earthscan Publications

Roslin Institute Online (Dolly)

Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland

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