Essay (Debate Prep)

Genetics Research: A threat to humanity, or its saviour? 

Intended Outcomes VS Unintended Outcomes

This isn't a stand-alone topic but rather is something threaded throughout each of the topics.  As with many things that we, as a society, engage in there are the intended outcomes and the unintended, unexpected outcomes of our decisions.  Sometimes these outcomes are positive and other times they are negative, leading us to ask deep ethical and moral questions.

The manipulating of  genes is done for the so-called betterment of society.  We hope it will improve our chances of survival - feed burgeoning populations, lead to life-saving procedures, and eliminate devastating diseases.  While these are admirable goals, we must also consider the possibility that the outcomes of genetic science can become something other than what was the original intention.  

People worry that reckless experimenting will have unforeseen, potentially catastrophic consequences. For example, the prospect of transplanting animal organs into people (xenotransplantation) raises concern that new diseases could jump from animals to humans, as SARS and "mad cow" disease have. Plastic Surgery (while not a gene-based procedure) was developed to help victims of fire and deformity - this was the intended use of plastic surgery.  But it has since become a multi-billion dollar Cosmetic Surgery industry for those who wish to "improve" or change their appearance (and have the resources to pay for it).

During your research I want you to explore both sides of your topic - what are the positive outcomes but are there any possible unintended outcomes that may or may not be a benefit to humanity? I want you to consider the Critical Challenge Question - Genetics Research: A threat to humanity, or its saviour? 

The Debate Topics are:

Genetic Testing

Genetic testing is, for now, optional. But many medical tests that start out as optional become less and less optional as time goes by. Who should decide when genetic tests are done? Should insurance companies or employers have access to the results?

Familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is an autosomal dominant disorder which appears when the heart muscle overgrows in adulthood. Often the first sign is sudden death, otherwise the only symptoms are an enlarged heart with altered electrical activity. A family has fifteen adult members. A missense mutation in the gene for an important heart muscle protein is found in all 8 of the members with cardiomyopathy but this mutation is found in none of the healthy adults. This mutation can be detected at any age, even before birth. There are fifteen children in this family. Debate the topic: These children should be tested for this missense mutation t provide for appropriate medical surveillance. In addition: If tested, who should get the results of the test?

The Human Genome Project is attempting to unravel the mysteries of the function and location of all human genes. Conducting genetic profiles on individuals will be an expensive procedure once the Genome Project is completed. Debate the following: Medical insurance companies have the right to learn the genetic profiles of individuals that they insure. Also include a discussion of: Employers have a right to know the genetic profiles of disorders of their employees who are in jobs in which there is a high risk to others - such as airline pilots, bus driver etc.

Gene Therapy and Genetic Engineering

Some wonder if it's right to tinker with human DNA. Currently, treatments are focused on somatic cells, that is, cells in the body. Any alterations are not passed on to later generations, because DNA in the germ cells-eggs and sperm-is unaffected. But so-called germ line gene therapy is certainly possible. It could cure diseases before they happened, but might cause other unexpected problems that would persist in later generations. (

This topic includes issues of Transgenic engineering, in which genes are isolated and combined to produce new species.

Gene Doping

One has only to remember the recent scandal involving seven-time-winner of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong.  Lance Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles as a result of his use banned substances.  One such substance used by Armstrong was erythropoietin, or EPO (which increases red blood cell production, and therefore increasing oxygen levels in the blood). Although Lance Armstrong did not do gene doping, it may be possible in the future for athletes like Lance to have their genes altered directly avoiding the need for injections of banned substances.  Athletes could be include everything from genetic alterations (so-called gene doping) to the regeneration of tissue using stem cells.

“The challenge is that athletes are turning to substances that mimic natural substances in your body.” Dr. Fedoruk.  Will athletes be able to use Gene Therapy to augment their bodies in ways for which testing is not managable or possible? 
(Listen to this 22 minute CBC Studio Sparks program on Gene Doping:

Designer Baby

If prenatal genetic tests become more common, will people with certain genetic traits, diseases, or even predispositions suffer increased discrimination? Will "designer babies" become the norm? For some, the opportunities presented by genetic testing and therapies smack of eugenics, the use of selective breeding to create "superior" people. (

Should parents be able to choose the sex of their child?  What is the line that we, as a society, "should not" cross?  Is screening for disease appropriate?  What about screening for disease-causing mutations?


The cloning of ‘Dolly’ the sheep in 1997 by Ian Wilmut and his colleagues at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh generated a spontaneous worldwide reaction. Dr. Richard Seed, an American geneticist, claimed he would be able to clone human beings within a year.

The debate around cloning appears to center around the the cloning of humans, but there are other issues at stake.  Would the cloning of a beloved and dying pet be reasonable?  What is the line we "should not" cross with cloning?

Genetics and Business

Who "owns" the genetic information-or the life forms-that come from research? These questions arise with increasing frequency in industry, where patents are granted for genetically engineered plants and animals, and for genetic sequences.
Companies argue that without patents, they are left with no guarantee that they can recoup their investment when they discover key genes. But do patents stifle progress and the free exchange of ideas, so important in science? 

Should researcher organizations which are identifying sequences for specific proteins involved in genetic diseases and the establishment of test kits for these diseases have the right to patent these sequences as their own for the purpose of profit?

Unintended Consequences

People worry that reckless experimenting will have unforeseen, potentially catastrophic consequences. For example, the prospect of transplanting animal organs into people (xenotransplantation) raises concern that new diseases could jump from animals to humans, as SARS and "mad cow" disease have. 


The genetic modification of plants for food is a hot-button issue around the world. Genes transplanted to corn, potato, soy bean and other food strains can confer desired traits, such as resistance to pests, which lessens the need for toxic pesticides. Though genetically modified foods are thought to be safe to eat, their impact on the environment may not be fully known. 


Is there are relationship between genetics and a predisposition to commit crimes? "Since the beginning of criminological research has been an ongoing debate and disagreement regarding the correlation between genetic characteristics and criminal behavior." 

Human Research

Do you think that research on human pre- embryos should be allowed? Should fetal tissue be used to treat disease? Make sure to explain to the class what is considered a pre- embryo and when an embryo is considered a fetus.

Experimental gene therapies exist to treat glioma and melanoma and are being tested on people who have tried and been unsuccessful with traditional therapies, but are now close to losing their battle. Do you believe that this is the best sort of patient, or should we adequately test genetic therapy by starting with healthier patients? Example: In June 1992, 25 leading cell transplant researchers called for a halt to myoblast transfer therapy being conducted on children with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy until further animal studies confirm that the procedure does more good than harm. The children treated thus far show minor improvement but it isn't clear whether these improvements are real or a response to an immunosuppressant drug given to prevent rejection of the healthy myoblasts that are transferred. Should the experiments on children proceed or be halted? Make sure to include in your debate the perspective of the mice animal researcher, the researcher conducting myoblast transfers on children and the parents of a child with muscular dystrophy.

Animal Research

Rats have been used by scientist to develop a nasal spray gene therapy for cystic fibrosis. Mice can manufacture some human proteins in their blood. Dogs were important in developing treatments for hemophilia and bone marrow transplants would not be possible without earlier work done with dogs. Many people object to the use of mammals in experiments. Do you feel that animal models of human genetic disease are necessary. Should treatments be allowed on laboratory mammals before attempting the treatment on humans?

Genetic Responsibility

Parents should be held accountable by law for their care of children with known genetic defects. Example: An infant who is tested for P.K.U. at birth and found to be positive must be provided with a phenylalanine free diet by their parent. A child of parents in a high risk group for a known genetic defect (such as sickle cell anemia) must be tested at birth and take antibiotic drugs throughout childhood to prevent infections which can be deadly to children with sickle cell anemia. Parents who do not provide for testing and treatment of their children are punishable by law. 

The Media

The media often mis-reports on science, especially new treatments for disease. Example: In 1965, in the prestigious science journal Nature, it was reported that "It is not yet clear whether the increased frequency of XYY males found in this institution (prison) is related to aggressive behavior or to their mental deficiency or to a combination of both." Example: The findings of Yankner and Kowall implicated beta-amyloid in causing Alzheimer's-like damage in rats and a substance P in preventing the damage. As a result many families of Alzheimer's victims had their hopes raised. The press has given poor coverage to the many challenges of these findings by other known scientists. Debate the obligation of the press to report controversies or setbacks in medical research.