Eric Lander on Scientific Responsibility

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky January 9, 2012
Biopolitical Times

I began reading the profile of geneticist Eric Lander in last week’s New York Times “Science Times” section with a special interest in both the man and how science writer Gina Kolata would tell his story. My curiosity was based in part on a fascinating and unusual short commentary Lander wrote way back in 2000, published in the very same section of the New York Times, reflecting on the meaning of the then-recent announcement that the human genome had been, as he termed it, “largely deciphered.”

But first some thoughts on Kolata’s profile. It is a deservedly admiring account, focusing on Lander’s trajectory from brilliant but academy-bound theoretical mathematician to a key player in the explosive growth of human genomics, both as a science and as an institutional powerhouse in the research world. She lingers on Lander’s evident intellectual and organizational talents: This is, after all, a person who received a MacArthur “genius” award at age 30, and who in 2003, engineered the establishment of the multi-hundred-million-dollar Harvard-MIT genomics collaborative research endeavor, the Broad Institute.

Kolata does not, however, mention that he appears to have genuine concerns about the social and ethical implications of the scientific and technological breakthroughs he has helped to achieve. In an online interview that accompanies the profile, Lander muses:

[O]ne’s responsibilities don’t just stop at the boundary of the lab. When you go home, you’re still thinking about what the impact’s going to be. How is it that medical advances are going to be equitably distributed across society, not just available to people who have resources but available broadly? How are you going to be sure you work on problems that matter in the developing world as well as in the developed world? These are the sorts of questions that scientists should be asking. Scientists are part of the world, they’re in the world.

In his essay of more than a decade ago, Lander asked and answered just such a question. This was a moment when other well-known scientists, including a number of Nobel laureates, were on a self-declared campaign to make the idea of re-engineering the genes of future generations “acceptable” to the American public. While many researchers were probably alarmed by their efforts, Lander was the only scientist of anything like his level of prominence who publicly put a stake in the ground opposing it. His dissent is well worth remembering today:

The hardest question is, To what extent will we decide to reshape the genes we pass to our children? Some of my close colleagues are already proposing ways to ''re-engineer'' what they view as an ''imperfect'' human genome--to prevent cancer, slow aging, or enhance memory--by modifying the human germline. These are serious goals, not to be lightly dismissed. Yet, I find it unsettling that we've only just skimmed the three-billion-year-old genetic text and already they're saying, ''Hey! I think I can improve on this!''

Safety is, of course, a major concern. Given the subtleties of human physiology, quick genetic fixes are likely to do more harm than good. And the prospect of a ''product recall'' from the human gene pool is too surreal to contemplate. But there will come a time when we can do such things safely, and it's not too soon to ask whether we should. Will we adopt the image of humans as a product of manufacture, rather than a product of nature? If we cross that fateful threshold, I don't see how we can ever return.

I part company from some of my colleagues here. While I'm strongly opposed to laws limiting scientific investigation, I would support a ban on modifying the human germline. Society could always repeal the prohibition if we become technically adept enough and morally wise enough. But we should have to rebut a strong presumption against tampering.