The Nobel Prize and the New Eugenics

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky October 9, 2007
Biopolitical Times

Three scientists have been awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on gene-targeting and other techniques for producing transgenic mice. Known as “knockout mice,” these genetically engineered animals are widely used by researchers to model and study human diseases. In the words of one of the Nobel committee members, they have “led to penetrating new insights into development, immunology, neurobiology, physiology and metabolism.”

Not mentioned in the award announcement or media coverage of it are new Nobelist Mario Capecchi’s views on the future use of these techniques to produce transgenic human beings – genetically modified people who would pass their engineered traits on to all future generations. In short, Capecchi is on record embracing the idea.

Capecchi’s techno-utopian views seem particularly jarring in light of his biography. As a small child in Italy during World War Two, he lived on the streets and in orphanages for several years after his mother was taken to Dachau as a political prisoner. Yet he appears to endorse the use of the genetic tools he has developed for purposes that are frankly eugenic.

Capecchi was one of several prominent scientists – along with James Watson of double helix fame, ex-Science editor Daniel Koshland, mouse biologist turned futurist Lee Silver, and others – who enthused about this prospect at the notorious 1998 conference Engineering the Human Germline. Held at UCLA and covered on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, the event was described by its organizers as part of an effort to make inheritable genetic modification “acceptable” to the public. “The question is not if, but when and how,” the conference report asserted.

Capecchi’s conference presentation was titled “The Genetic Engineer’s Tool Box.” Its abstract described it as “examin[ing] the techniques used to engineer genetic changes in various organisms and consider[ing] their technical potential for refinement into tools for safe, reliable germline engineering in humans.”

Capecchi acknowledged concerns about the safety and wisdom of making permanent changes in the human genome. If germline engineering were to begin in twenty years, he mused, “the procedures that we'll be working out at that point will appear very primitive fifty years from now. And those procedures, in turn, will appear very primitive a hundred years from now.” This is a serious problem, he said: “So there's no way we should create a system where it is a permanent record.”

But for Capecchi, this problem is surmountable. In fact, he had already devised a clever work-around. His proposal: Create germline genetic changes that can be activated or reversed with a drug cocktail. In his plan, the altered genes inserted into every cell in the future child’s body would be designed to function only until they encounter the drugs that turn them off. Or they would be designed to do nothing until they were turned on. “It's simply not something we are writing in stone and whatever mistakes we make we're going to have to live with from then on,” Capecchi explained. “There are very simple ways to make it reversible.”

In an undated video clip that appears to be more recent, Capecchi expresses what sounds like wariness about human germline engineering. But to my knowledge, he has never reconsidered his fundamental support for it, nor discussed its eugenic implications. And he remains eager to extend the reach of his tinkering. “So far the work we've been doing has been entirely in mice,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education after learning of his Nobel award. “[W]e are interested in seeing if this knockout technology applies to other mammalian species.”