Watch CBSN Live

Biotechnology, Ethics & The Future

By the end of this year, researchers will complete one of the great scientific achievements of all time: a map of every gene that forms the human body.

We are, undoubtedly, in the midst of a genetic revolution. It could well mean made-to-order babies or the creation of spare organs for transplant. Soon the question of bio-technology will change from "can we?" to "should we?"

CBS News looks for some answers from the man who has given more thought to this than just about anyone, Dr. Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania:

If we're going to use this genetic knowledge, should we use it to improve ourselves? Do you want to make better babies? Do you want to make taller people? Faster people? Stronger people? People with better memory? That's not going to happen right away, but it will. This revolution in front of us is as personal as it gets, concerning our sex, our race, our family.

But how much do you really want to know about your future health?

One of the great ironies of the genetic revolution is that it teaches us about our flaws, our limits. We now know, oh, that's what's going to hurt, that's what's going to kill me, that's what I'm at risk of, those are my weaknesses.

Some say those weaknesses, those imperfections are the essence of what makes us human. One debate of the new millennium is whether should we build better babies? The debate is going to break out because, if you think about what we do with kids now environmentally. Many parents say "I want my kid to go to the best school. I want my kid to go to the tennis camp. I want them to have piano lessons. I want the best for my child. Why not the genetic best?"

But can we get the genetic best? Certainly not yet, but gene therapy technology is racing ahead faster than anyone thought possible. It's a technology that is in its absolute infancy. The basic idea is this: We know that some diseases are absolutely genetic, say 90 percent genetic in cause. Somebody is born with a genetic message that's just wrong, bad for the organism. Gene therapy goes in, finds what's missing at the molecular level and puts it back.

But are we opening a Pandora's box or a treasure chest?

The possibilities make some people nervous, but says most of the revolution is still a way off. We have time. We haven't lost the ability to regulate control, set limits on where the technology is going. What is perhaps more fearful is that maybe we don't want to. Americans like a free-wheeling, open ended society. They treasure their liberty. They like their autonomy. The prospect of saying you can't do that research, you won't make that baby, you can't take that cell and do something to it, sounds un-American.

But even if science has a right to do it, is it the right thing to do? The toughest moral dilemma centers on stem cell research. Stem cells are the fundamental cells found in embryos that have the ability to become ny kind of tissue or organ in the body. If you can get them early enough, the idea is, maybe you can grow them into the things that people might need. Make a new liver or make insulin producing cells for diabetics.

The trouble is where the stem cells come from. They can only be taken by destroying a human embryo. Some researchers want to use embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics, which often have many unwanted or unusable embryos. Should we use those to find the stem cells?

That's probably the core ethical and political issue that's going to be settled by Congress. Are we going to let people use the spares? It's hard to imagine the country allowing people to make embryos just to pull stem cells out of them. And it's probably equally hard to imagine that we're not going to try and grow nerve cells for people in wheelchairs, say in effect, "well I'm sorry our moral respect for an embryo is too big. We can't help you."

Another question is: Whatever happened to cloning? But that's not really an issue, because we don't want to copy, we want to improve.

But if we can tailor people better than nature has, who gets to buy designer genes? That's going to lead to the most serious ethical debate that society will face: Are we going to try and do that? Will we set any limits at all? Will the market determine it? Who will have access? Will the poor get it like the rich? Will the third world have it if the first world has it too? That's going to be the battleground.

These will be issues for lawmakers of course, but Dr. Caplan fears that biotechnology has passed most legislators by.

In a recent meeting of state lawmakers, Dr. Caplan asked the politicians where they thought their genes were. Only a quarter of them knew that genes are found in every cell in the body.