- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

A Princeton physicist yesterday warned that a genetic "caste" system may arise in the future if science, government and business promote a free-market trafficking in human genes.

"Wealthy parents will be able to buy what they consider superior genes for their babies," said Freeman Dyson of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "This could cause a splitting of humanity into hereditary castes."

In a public address last night at the Washington National Cathedral, Mr. Dyson portrayed how rapidly genetic change could happen, taking humanity back to a time of masters and slaves.

"Within a few generations, the children of rich and poor could become separate species," he said.

The visionary speech, which came as part of a ceremony for Mr. Dyson's Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, is not uncommon in the debate over mapping the human genome.

"For many years, we've had talk like this," said Jonathan Moreno, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia. "I don't think anyone can say we're at that stage of the technology yet. But it is worth talking about."

The debate over who will control the information deciphered from the 3 billion chemical codes that make up tens of thousands of genes on the 46 human chromosomes has been heightened this year by a race between government and private ventures.

The federally funded Human Genome Project, begun in 1990, expects to lay out an "average" human DNA code by 2001. The private venture of Celera Genomics in Rockville, Md., is claiming to have nearly completed the project, and soon will be ready to sell its data to "subscribers."

In response, the federal Human Genome Project already pouring its data onto the Internet announced it will step up that effort to make genome information free in the public domain.

Meanwhile, the federal-private debate, or what has been called "science by press conferences," has put biotechnology stocks on a roller coaster in recent months.

Mr. Dyson, who has worked in the World War II defense of England and later in small nuclear reactors and nuclear arms control, says biotechnology demands government regulation.

"The ultimate danger of green [biological] technology comes from its power to change the nature of human beings by the application of genetic engineering to human embryos," Mr. Dyson said. "No matter how strongly we believe in the virtues of a free market economy, the free market must not extend to human genes."

He said biotechnology meanwhile has produced "tremendous goods" such as medicine and genetic improvement of food for a hungry world.

"The two great evils to be avoided are the use of biological weapons and the corruption of human nature by buying and selling genes," he said.

Mr. Dyson's ethical message from atop Mount Saint Alban, where the cathedral stands, resonates along Maryland's Interstate 270 Technology Corridor. The 25 miles of highway are home to nearly half of Maryland's 235 biotechnology businesses.

"If handled properly, genetic information can be used without creating ethical problems, such as insurance discrimination," said Robert Burrows, director of corporate communications for Gene Logic Inc. in Rockville.

The company will distribute genome information on how genes seem to be "switched on and switched off" so pharmaceutical companies may experiment with medical solutions to diseases.

With this market approach, he said, "Our information allows drug discovery and development to arrive more quickly and safely."

Scientists say the earliest application of genome material will be to diagnose diseases such as cancer or assess a person's potential for a disease.

Production of medicines still is on a far horizon, and farther still the "therapy" of inserting healthy genes into human cells to correct malfunctioning genes.

In the ethical debate which takes place while there is no government regulation on genome information and some patent rights for researchers the question is whether gene knowledge will be used to heal people or to "enhance" people by genetic manipulation of looks, intelligence or strength.

Enhancement is the specter raised by Mr. Dyson, though Mr. Moreno of the bioethics center said there has long been moral debate on parents contributing to the success of their offspring through economics, health, social mobility and the luck of genetic endowment.

"People with money can already shape what their children become," Mr. Moreno said. "It is not clear how these things are morally different."

The Rev. Richard Land, who heads the ethics and policy office of the Southern Baptist Convention, said moral concerns about abuse of gene technology must trump the free market.

"We have an Atomic Energy Commission, and I believe we need the same kind of commission for biotechnology," he said. "There's a similar possibility of catastrophe."

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