"To become an embryo, you had to build yourself from a single cell. You had to respire before you had lungs, digest before you had a gut, build bones when you were pulpy, and form orderly arrays of neurons before you knew how to think. One of the critical differences between you and a machine is that a machine is never required to function until after it is built. Every animal has to function as it builds itself." –Scott F. Gilbert, Developmental Biology (eighth edition).
Human embryos cannot be patented, according to a law signed by President Obama on Friday. These days, biologists can swap out the genetic material of newts and frogs, clone a lamb from a single adult sheep cell, or "knock out" a specific gene in a mouse in order to see what happens. These technological powers make the concern about patenting experimental humans less than farfetched. In the effort to escape disease, federal funds are once again free to support embryonic stem cell research. The days of quilting together bits of DNA to create the perfect baby may or may not be years off. As technology advances, humankind must continually balance the pursuit for good health with the ethical concerns endemic in toying with human life.
No Patenting Humans:
President Obama signed the "America Invents Act" (H.R. 1249) on September 16th after the US Senate passed it September 8 by a vote of 89 to 9. The legislation is primarily an adjustment and updating of U.S. patent laws, but in section 33, the new law specifically states: "Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no patent may issue on a claim directed to or encompassing a human organism."
This little slice of the law prohibits an inventor from obtaining exclusive rights to certain technology used in human embryos. National Right to Life feared the biotechnology industry would develop lines of human embryos with certain genetic characteristics and would then patent and market these embryos as "models" for doing research on cures for certain diseases. There had been a temporary ban on issuing patents for human embryos, but this law makes it permanent.
Biotechnology Industry Organization fought against the ban because it would prevent patents from being issued on embryos produced by human cloning. (Attempts at cloning humans have so far had very little success.) BIO argued in a memo that because there was human intervention taking place in the creation of a "genetically modified embryo" then that embryo should be patentable.
NRLC’s Douglas Johnson commented, "This law recognizes that human life is not a commodity, and that a member of the human family can never be regarded as a mere invention, or as 'intellectual property.'"
Stem Cell Research:
In the meanwhile, two scientists are seeking to bring back the ban on using tax dollars for embryonic stem cell studies. Dr. James Sherley, a biological engineer at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Theresa Deisher, of Washington-based AVM Biotechnology, have appealed the July ruling that overturned the prohibition on federal funding for stem cell research on human embryos. The scientists have argued that, among other things, federal funds have been diverted from their research that uses adult stem cells for therapies.
The Amazing Body:
Most of us really have no clue how fantastic our bodies are. Every part of the body develops from the single cell of the fertilized egg, from the kidneys and the brain to the cartilage in the ear and the lining of the alveoli in the lungs. Every cell nucleus contains the same DNA, yet each cell uses the genetic coding in the DNA in a specific way, whether to form hard bone in one case or eye jelly in another. The cells pick and choose which portion of the gene they need.
One of DNA's jobs is to code for proteins, which get assembled as chains of amino acids that fold up naturally, comfortably, into globs. Big, messy globs. Yet, each protein is useful because of the precise way it folds up. It's the specific sequence of amino acids that determines how a protein wants to fold, and the shape it takes is what makes it able to do its job. One kind of protein goes into making the heart muscle. Another becomes an enzyme. Certain proteins mesh into the scaffolding of the cell, or form gateways into the cell, or hold cells together. And some get the honor of becoming part of the sonic hedgehog signaling pathway between cells in the hand to make sure babies' fingers form properly. Yes. There are even sonic hedgehog proteins.
We haven't even mentioned the transcription factors that have to be in place for DNA to make RNA copies, or the sentries outside the nucleus waiting to let in only those molecules with the right ID cards. We haven't described the ribosomes or lysosomes or white blood cells or neurotransmitters, or crazy biochemical cascades that go into making blood coagulate after the knife slips when we're cutting onions.
Each cell has a city's worth of industry, and a multitude of these busy little cells make up each organ. The organs don't work in a vacuum either. Each of the organs in the digestive and circulatory system cooperate with the skeletal and muscle and endocrine systems, which are all told what to do by the nervous system. A trillion tiny bits and pieces all do their jobs to make up the organism that we call, "me." And all of it takes place without our thinking about it, while we sit and read this article, only half conscious of our hands on the keyboard and mouse.
We are intricately knit together. Each living creature is a wonder, a masterpiece. Yet, on top of everything else, the trillions of tiny actors that make up "me" don't come together just to move us around like robots. They all work together as we laugh and love and rejoice in life. Our trillions of parts act in harmony so that we can knit hats and play piano concertos and devise cones for the holding of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
We have the ability to screen new embryos for potential deformities before implanting them in a uterus. We have the ability to stick human cells into frogs and plug human DNA into cow eggs and genetically modify embryos to take on certain traits. We need to retain some awe. The overwhelming details that go into life should astonish us and make us pause, especially as we make decisions about experimenting on human beings, however small they are. We need to be careful. Designer babies may not be the worst thing we create... and their siblings might not be the only things we destroy.