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The Bioethics Council has given a green light to putting human genes into
plants and animals, provided that the benefits of reduced human suffering
outweigh suffering by the animals involved, August 2004 by Simon Collins.
The council, in its first major report since it was created late in 2002,
has done an about-turn from a survey it published in January which found
that New Zealanders expressed "almost universal rejection" to putting human
genes into other organisms.
Its final report now says: "There was wide acceptance of the use of human
genes in other organisms for the relief of human suffering."
The report was welcomed today by both health researchers and animal rights
advocates, suggesting that it has found a middle way between the two
The council was recommended by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification
in 2001 to provide guidelines on social, ethical and cultural aspects of
biotechnology. Its conclusions are expected to guide decisions on particular
cases by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma).
Its first reports follow public controversy over projects such as
AgResearch's plan to put human genes into cows to make them express proteins
in their milk which might cure human diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
The council has held 12 hui involving 220 people, received 130 submissions
and run an online discussion in which 27 people took part.
It found that in scientific terms it was difficult to define many genes as
strictly "human", because many common genes are found in all mammals and
some even in simpler animals and plants.
"However, genes are more than chemicals. They also have cultural
significance," it said.
"There is a concern among some that human genes should not enter the food
chain. While for some the concern is related to risk, there is also a
cultural issue in that it is inappropriate that human genes be in food. We
consider that this opinion should be respected."
The council has therefore endorsed the royal commission's proposals that
"wherever possible, non-food animals [should] be used as bioreactors rather
than animals that are a common source of food", and that wherever possible
genes should be made in the laboratory or taken from other mammals rather
than from humans.
In cases where alternatives are not possible, it said human genes should be
used in ways that respect "what is special about humans".
"The council opposes, most notably, those modifications that would give
non-human organisms the capacity for human language, and associated powers
of reason, and those that would cause non-human organisms to look like
humans," it said.
But giving animals human diseases could be justified if this helped to
develop a treatment or cure for the disease.
"The council would urge caution, and a careful weighing of likely benefits
against costs, but it would not necessarily oppose such a modification."
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