Biotechnology has the capacity to change our lives greatly for the better, says Robert May. But it could also do massive harm. It is vital to establish where the social, cultural and ethical boundaries lie in a range of scientific fields – and to maximize the good use, while minimizing the misuse, of technological advance for society as a whole

As the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA draw to a close, there still appears to be doubt about the nature of the legacy that will be created by the biotechnology revolution that has followed the pioneering work of Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

Will the potential applications of our greater understanding of the double helix and subsequent advances help us to banish disease and hunger from the world, as the most enthusiastic proponents of biotechnology claim?

Or will they unleash a “gene genie” that could wreak havoc across our planet, confirming the worst fears of some doomsayers?

Although we are enjoying an age in which our understanding of the living world is growing at an ever-increasing pace, we appear to be faced with ever more dilemmas about the uses to which this knowledge should be put.

With arguments across the world about the alleged benefits and evils of technologies such as cloning and genetic modification, it seems that we have yet to come to terms fully with the consequences of those momentous events of half a century ago in Cambridge and London.

The time has come for us to do a better job of choosing more deliberately what sort of world we want to create with the opportunities offered by biotechnology. We must find a way of realizing the many potential benefits that our increasing knowledge brings – while also dealing with the many social, cultural and ethical issues that often accompany them.

And we need to recognize the distinction between a technology and its potential applications, either good or bad. Over the past year we have seen the damage caused by not doing so.

The United Nations is locked in a stalemate over the applications of cloning technology. In late December, the UN delayed for yet another year a decision on whether to outlaw human reproductive cloning.

It is perplexing that the UN should be having difficulty in expressing its opposition to a handful of mavericks who claim to be engaged in practices that are widely acknowledged as medically unsafe, scientifically unsound and socially unacceptable.

The problem is not that some countries want to allow reproductive cloning. Instead agreement is being prevented by arguments over whether so-called therapeutic cloning – a technique for exploring the medical potential of stem cells obtained from early human embryos – should also be prohibited.

In very broad terms, both reproductive and therapeutic cloning require the same initial technique. The nucleus from a donor’s cell is transferred to an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. A small electrical charge followed by some careful nurturing prompt the cloned cell to begin to divide, producing an embryo.

But there the similarity ends. In reproductive cloning, the cloned embryo is implanted into the womb, with the intention of producing a baby.

Experiments involving mammals other than humans show that the risks of reproductive cloning to both mother and baby are high, with elevated rates of foetal deformities and complications in pregnancy. And even those offspring that are born apparently normal can suffer later in life, for instance from the effects of premature ageing.

Few disagree that it would be extremely irresponsible to try such an unsafe technology on people. However, the advocates of the reproductive cloning of people seem more motivated by the publicity of carrying out such experiments, in the face of overwhelming scientific and medical opinion, than by a genuine regard for the plight of the human guinea pigs that would take part.

Therapeutic cloning, by contrast, would allow scientists to investigate the development of radical new stem cell treatments to repair the damage to tissues and organs caused by diseases and injuries suffered by millions of people around the globe.

By allowing scientists to investigate how to reprogramme the nucleus, it could significantly advance our understanding of both embryonic and adult stem cells. Research into therapeutic cloning does involve the production of a very early human embryo – a microscopic ball of unspecialized cells no more than 14 days old, with no primitive streak yet developed.

This raises serious ethical issues that some countries consider to be the basis for a ban. But there are clear medical benefits to weigh against the ethical doubts and questions – and different peoples, cultures, or countries can come to different conclusions.

Attempting to deal with reproductive and therapeutic cloning together because they involve the same initial technique may seem logical. But it makes policy-making difficult when it forces a stand-off over the ethics of using cloned early-stage human embryos in research.

It is this coupling of reproductive and therapeutic cloning that has paralysed negotiations at the UN. In a bid to break the stalemate, 67 of the world’s scientific academies – including the Royal Society in the United Kingdom and the United States National Academy of Sciences – have jointly called for human reproductive cloning to be made illegal in every country, but for legislation governing therapeutic cloning to be considered separately by individual nations.

This unprecedented show of unity by academies, whose members constitute more than 16,000 of the world’s leading scientists, was partly prompted by the fact that to date fewer than 40 countries have passed laws against human reproductive cloning. Such a patchy international response appears to have encouraged cowboy cloners, who want to try their disreputable techniques on humans.

Notable among the countries that have not made human reproductive cloning illegal is the United States. Repeated attempts to pass national legislation have foundered because of the dispute about whether or not to outlaw therapeutic cloning simultaneously. For some, the issue here seems to have more to do with tactics than ethics. As a result, the United States appears from the outside to offer a haven for those wishing to carry out reproductive cloning on humans.

It would be surprising if we did not hear during the next 12 months more claims from mavericks based in the United States that they are determined to carry out human reproductive cloning with private funding.

But we should also bear in mind that the cloning of human beings may actually be no more than science fiction. Nobody has yet produced any evidence that they have succeeded in cloning a human embryo.

Indeed, recent experiments have shown that the cloning of primates is technically much more difficult than with other mammals, calling into question whether it is even feasible in humans.

However, what is real is the public anxiety that such claims cause – particularly when accompanied by a flurry of publicity. It is important therefore that every country introduces effective legislation to deter cowboy cloners.

The UN, and indeed the United States, should heed the advice of science academies and set apart the arguments over therapeutic cloning so that there can be an effective international ban on the reproductive cloning of humans.

Similar disputes are dogging other fields of biotechnology, such as genetic engineering. In the United Kingdom and many other parts of Europe, doubts about biotechnology have focused on possible problems that may arise from growing genetically modified crops. Although it is not inherently dangerous to use modern biotechnology to change the genetic make-up of plants – and indeed its precision means it actually carries fewer risks of inadvertent problems than the mass shuffling of genes through conventional cross-breeding techniques – opposition to genetic modification has grown out of concerns about the way in which it will be applied.

This was demonstrated in October 2003 when the results of the three-year farm-scale trials of genetically modified crops in the United Kingdom were published.

The research compared the impact on farmland wildlife of weed management systems used in conjunction with varieties of conventional and genetically modified herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize.

Biodiversity was significantly lower in the genetically modified oilseed rape and sugar beet test sites, but higher for maize, when compared with fields in which their conventional counterparts were grown.

Unfortunately, opposing sides in the propaganda war over genetic modification in the United Kingdom have sought to use the research results to make sweeping generalizations about the technology.

This division along predetermined lines of argument has obscured the fundamental point that the genetic modification of crops can either be used to further intensify agricultural practices, with a concomitant negative effect on wildlife, or to work more with the grain of nature to reduce the impact of modern farming methods on the environment.

The United Kingdom and other member states of the European Union now have to decide whether the results of the farm-scale trials justify the refusal of applications to grow commercially those varieties of genetically modified herbicide-resistant oilseed rape and sugar beet.

If so, it will set an important precedent that any future innovation in farming, whether or not it involves genetic modification, should be assessed in advance – and rejected if it is more damaging to the environment than existing agricultural technologies.

It remains to be seen how the commercial sector will respond to these results and to the perceived lack of enthusiasm among the UK public for genetically modified products that appear to offer benefits only to the producer and not to the consumer or to the environment.

It is also unclear whether pressure groups will abandon their ideological opposition to the technology of genetic modification and instead campaign for it to be applied in ways of which they approve.

And of course, in the developing world, benefits to the producer may actually be welcomed if they increase overall levels of prosperity and, for example, allow farmers to cultivate land that cannot currently sustain conventional crop species.

However, a major underlying public concern about both cloning and genetically modified crops is that technological advances are happening too quickly for regulators to control them properly.

All too often, the “slippery slope” argument is invoked to oppose technological innovation for fear that society is incapable of guiding its development. But if we are not to forsake the promises of a better world offered by the biotechnology revolution, society must regain its confidence in measures to prevent its misuse.

Scientists themselves must accept some of the responsibility for this – by engaging in public debate about the possible uses of the technologies that they develop, and keeping within the boundaries determined by the rest of society.

Researchers already accept, and indeed often initiate, formal regulation of their work – particularly in those areas where the dangers are perceived to be greatest, such as research on contagious diseases, or where the ethical and moral constraints are most obvious, such as research involving human embryos.

A notable example is the voluntary moratorium that was put in place by the scientific community itself in the 1970s during the early days of ‘gene-splicing’ – a technique for cutting up and recombining different pieces of DNA.

Following the landmark Asilomar meeting in 1975 at Pacific Grove, California, the work of molecular biologists across the world went ahead under a set of self-imposed and precautionary guidelines.

But it is policy-makers to whom people turn for guarantees that technology will not be used against the public good. It is perhaps ironic that the international treaty designed to prevent the most heinous uses of biotechnology should provide one of the best models for ruling out misuse while permitting good use.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention recognizes that in some cases the same technologies can be used either to improve life or to destroy it, but that the threat of the latter should not prevent the realisation of the former.

Masterfully, the treaty includes a General Purpose Criterion for outlawing the production of biological agents that “have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes”. As a result, the treaty remains as relevant to biotechnology today as it did when it was originally conceived.

It is difficult to think of a worse possible use of a new technology than to develop a potential new weapon that could cause casualties on a massive scale. Yet even this horrendous possibility is outweighed by the enormous cost of rejecting advances in biotechnology out of hand and passing up the opportunity of harnessing them for the benefit of humankind.

Quality of life and prosperity can be improved worldwide through biotechnology, but only if we make that deliberate choice.

Lord May of Oxford
Robert May is president of the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science, and was chief scientific adviser to the UK government from 1995 to 2000.