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8-Humans: 'Genetic shield' may beat cancer

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TITLE:  'Genetic shield' may beat cancer 
        DNA offers hope of altering path of evolution, say pioneers
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by Tim Radford,3604,942211,00.html
DATE:   Apr 24, 2003

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'Genetic shield' may beat cancer 
DNA offers hope of altering path of evolution, say pioneers 

Humans could be close to deliberately altering their evolutionary
"destiny" and one day even introducing a natural cancer vaccine into
their inheritance, claimed the giants of genetic research gathered in
London last night to celebrate "50 years of DNA".

"Human progress comes from knowledge," said James Watson who, with
Francis Crick in Cambridge, announced the double helix structure of DNA
on April 25, 1953. "We have got not only to accumulate knowledge but to
use it. Right now, society - many people, at least journalists - think it
somehow immoral if we use genetics to enhance ourselves. I think that we
should be allowed to try to improve human life."

The DNA celebrations coincide with the completion of the entire 3bn-
letter genetic code of humans. DNA carries the recipe for life, controls
the replication of each cell and the reproduction of every species.

Miro Bradman, of the French national institute for health and research,
predicted that soon people would know enough to modify their own genomes.
"This marvellous molecule encodes for its own doctors - enzymes that
repair and fix and change DNA. This DNA repair is associated with
mutation; mutation is associated with evolution, which is how life is
perptuated, but also with cancer and other terrible diseases," he said.

Cancer researchers have identified more than 100 gene changes associated
with tumours. They have also focused on one of the genes most linked to
genetic repair. Mice treated with extra copies of this gene have managed
to stave off cancer.

Could humans do the same? "There is an interesting case to discuss: is it
necessarily better to feed ourselves with chemicals to suppress symptoms
rather than go and heal the disease where it starts, at the genome?"

The gathering, at the Royal Society yesterday, and at a dinner last night
at Guildhall in London, marks a series of anniversaries. Sir Alec
Jeffreys, of Leicester University, the pioneer of genetic fingerprinting,
pointed out that it was 30 years since researchers devised the techniques
that led to the genetic modification of organisms, and it was the 25th
anniversary of the discovery of variations within the human genome that
could be used to identify individuals.

"One of the challenges now is to understand where that variation is
coming from, how forces out there in the population, such as natural
selection, are moulding those patterns of variation, and what the future
evolutionary trajectory of the human species possibly is," Sir Alec said.

Professor Watson, 75, became leader of the project to sequence the human
genome, and then director of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, in New
York state. He, Crick and the New Zealand scientist Maurice Wilkins, of
King's College London, shared the 1962 Nobel prize for discovering the
structure of the double helix. Prof Watson stirred up the world of
science in 1968 with a provocative bestseller, The Double Helix, and he
has continued to provoke ever since.

"I don't see genetics as offending the gods because I don't think there
are any gods up there. So who are we offending by trying to use genetics
to improve human life? What's wrong with a woman wanting to have a
healthy child?" he said.

Asked about the attitude of the US president George Bush to genetic
research, he said: "I had a better upbringing. I had a father who didn't
instil religion into me."