November 2, 2007
Brave new world
Symposium probes ethical aspects of genetics
by Michael Brown
As the scientific world arrives at the front gates of genetic discovery and gets its first glimpse of this new science's endless possibilities, the academic world is beginning to wonder if we're truly ready for what we'll find.
The notion of being careful what you wish for will likely emerge among the swirl of new ideas and exciting genetic breakthroughs as the University of Alberta hosts some of the world's top genetic researchers and thinkers at the Royal Society of Canada's 2007 Symposium on Nov. 16.
Entitled Social Sciences Facing Modern Genetics Challenges: Changing Boundaries between Gene Expressions, Behaviour and the Social Fabric, the 12-speaker symposium will explore the effects of genetic inheritance and social environment on everything from race to culture to family dynamics and into society at large.
Tim Caulfield, a Faculty of Law professor and co-chair of the Institute of Genetics Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Planning and Priority Committee, will speak about public representations of genetics and the re-emergence of old race stereotypes. He says one of the fears geneticists face as gene variances are discovered is having those discoveries misinterpreted.
"The question will be asked: 'Are there really sub classifications of homo sapiens based on the crude social constructs that we have always thought of as race, whether it be black, white, Asian, etc.?' " said Caulfield. "It's very interesting because almost any geneticist or anthropologist with tell you that race is a social construct; it's not a biological reality."
However, how genetic findings play out among academics and the public are two different stories. Caulfield says there is research being conducted that explores the genetic difference between populations, but studies exist only to serve the greater good, not fracture it.
"For instance, researchers are trying to find out if certain individuals differ in areas like how they react to drugs. Do certain populations differ in how they metabolize food? Or how they respond to certain infectious agents like SARS?" said Caulfield. "By doing that, researchers hope they can invent preventive strategies. But the problem is, given the social structures that exist, that genuinely valuable research can be translated into the racial stereotypes that are out there."
The debate recently flared up in comments made by none other than Nobel Prize winner James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. In a newspaper interview, Watson recently made the suggestion that different races haven't evolved the same, intellectually. The public outcry following those remarks continues unabated.
"This is the danger. There are real biological differences, but they are usually very discreet," said Caulfield. "Take the prevalence of a certain disease gene in a population; it doesn't mean a race is biologically different, but it can be interpreted that way or reported that way."
Symposium guest David Goldman, senior investigator and chief of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Maryland, studies the identification of genetic factors responsible for inherited differences in behaviour by exploring the genetics of alcoholism, substance abuse and related health problems.
"There are concerns any time that you are identifying genes that influence a complex disease, that the predictor might be misused instead of used for the benefit of people who actually have these disorders," said Goldman. "The actual attitude of people who do have these disorders, and their families, is that we should be learning everything we can about them, so that treatment and prevention might move out of what is the relative dark ages to what is an age of a little more enlightenment."
Emerging from this genetic race is a Pandora's box filled with identified genetic predictors that don't have the medical interventions to match.
Goldman cites as an example the ability to predict the onset of Huntington's disease, a controversial ability because scientists don't have an intervention to prevent the development of the ailment. Often, those who are genetically at risk choose not to get tested for this incurable disease.
Goldman stresses that this isn't the case with all genetic diseases.
"It is important to recognize for the psychiatric diseases that there are treatments available, if only partially effective," said Goldman. "It's quite likely that the treatments will be more effective if they could be better targeted. It is very likely, given that we have partially effective treatments, that by understanding the mechanism we are going to be able to develop better ones."
Richard Tremblay, director of the Research Unit on Children's Psycho-social Maladjustment at the University of Montreal, who will be speaking at the symposium about his 30 years of work researching the development of antisocial behaviour, said although this sudden rise of nurture as a key determining factor is intriguing, nature still aims the gun and pulls the trigger.
Tremblay's team has conducted longitudinal studies following children from Kindergarten on to find out which environmental influences make a young child become a violent adolescent. The original theory is that children learn through socialization to become violent. But in fact, with the exception of a very small group, adolescents actually become less aggressive with age.
It turns out that physical aggression increases at the end of the first year to age three or four and then starts decreasing, which has led to Tremblay's conclusion that the environment teaches alternatives to physical aggression and those who are physically aggressive during adolescence and adulthood "have simply not learned alternatives to physical aggression when they were young."
"It is clear that there is a strong genetic effect of frequency of physical aggression early on, but then environment has a large impact on whether children will learn to control these aggressive impulses early on," said Tremblay. "The environment affects the genes in the way the genes are expressed or not expressed depending on the quality of the environment."
In this case, Tremblay has shown that those who display chronic physical aggression have less gene expression than people on a 'normal' trajectory. His research has shown inadequate environment will prevent genes that organize the brain from being expressed, which in turn will lead to a difficulty in self-control.
"The conclusion from our study is that the dangerous thing is the environment and not the gene. If you have a disorganized environment, it is dangerous in the sense that the children won't find alternatives to physical aggression. There is more danger in the environment than there is in the gene, and sociologists should understand this."
RSC: The Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada, is the senior national body of distinguished Canadian scientists and scholars. Its primary objective is to promote learning and research in the arts and sciences.
The U of A hosts the RSC's annual general meeting Nov. 15 - 18. The RSC Symposium will run on Friday, Nov. 16 starting at 8:30 a.m. at Convocation Hall in the Arts building. The public is welcome. RSVP no later than Friday, Nov. 2. For more information, go to www.rsc.ca. Eighty new Fellows, including 12 U of A faculty members, will be elected to the hall during a special banquet and ceremony Nov. 17 at the Winspear Centre.