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The final session dealt with genetic enhancements. Lee Sweeney, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, described research in which he injects a gene that increases the expression of insulin-like growth hormone-1 (IGF-1) into the muscles of rodents. The gene becomes active only in the muscle tissue, and the subjects quickly become Arnold Schwarzenegger mice with no apparent side effects and without exercising.
Sweeney's research is aimed at helping people who suffer from muscle wasting due to aging and muscular dystrophy. He found that by adding the IGF-l gene he could prevent elderly mice from losing their muscle mass. But it would only work if he added the gene when the mouse was in middle age or younger. It couldn't restore muscle in elderly mice. He is now testing the gene in dogs, and if it works there he may try to start clinical trials in people in a couple of years.
One could imagine adding this gene to middle-aged baby boomers so they will not suffer muscle loss as the move toward their dotage. Is this genetic enhancement, or is it preventive medicine? Sweeney has already been asked to advise the anti-doping officials at the International Olympics Commission on how to detect this enhancement in future games. "The technology that allows us to treat human disease will also allow us to enhance people," he declared. Case Western Reserve University bioethicist Eric Juengst agreed. "There will always be a perfectly legitimate disease target for an intervention that can also be used for enhancement," he said.
Now to my possible complicity with suspect norms. I was assigned to the small group discussion of genetic enhancement. After a lot of wrangling, I was pleased that most of the group agreed with me that it is far too premature to suggest any regulations or legislation dealing with prospective enhancements. In fact, it might be better to allow private medical organizations to develop guidelines as the technologies mature. Interestingly, my group also agreed that research aimed at substantially extending human life spans was legitimate. If these recommendations hold up through the NHGRI process, some small victory may be won that allows research to continue without excessive government interference. So it looks like my friend is wrong; it probably is better to vote.