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4 The Review of Religions – June 2003 DNA – A Matter of Life and Death? The words ‘Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’ to the average person may mean little. Yet the significance of ‘Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’ (DNA) is so great that even as you read these words, it is revolutionising our world in a way that could perhaps be c o m p a red to the Industrial Revolution, or even man landing on the moon. DNA re s e a rc h , however, has the potential to go much further as it offers the chance to probe deeper into the mechanics of life systems and see how they work. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA, for it was back in April 1953 that an article by James Watson and Francis Crick of Cambridge University was published in the magazine N a t u re that revealed the DNA double helix. Unsurprisingly they received a Nobel Prize for their work, together with Maurice Wilkins of Kings College London who had also carried out essential research on DNA. (Dr Rosalind Franklin, whose work has subsequently been acknowl- edged as pivotal to the DNA findings, however, did not share the Nobel Prize). Watson and Crick also hypothesised that each strand of the helix could act as a template so allowing it to replicate the second strand – and their theory was subsequently proved right. As the work progressed over the next few decades scientists gained a better understanding of the composition DNA and more significantly how DNA could be manipulated. As the knowledge of DNA components and their interaction with other molecules increased scientists assembled a ‘genetic toolbox’. The next step was for them to map out an entire genome and this was first achieved for the genome of a bacterial virus that comprised 5,400 bases. This inspired them to go for gold and seek to map the ultimate genome – the human genome – this, however, was to Notes & Comments be a much harder task as it consists of nearly 3 billions bases. Nevertheless, technological advances made it possible to do this quicker than expected and in May this year the complete human genome was published (although crucially it did have some gaps). You did not need to be a scientists to realise that this was a momentous day as the ‘stuff of life’ for humans was laid bare in black and white for all to see and for some to manipulate. The opportunities presented by DNA and genetic engineering are immense and there has been much talk of the benefits of genetics. Genetics has opened a whole new chapter in the field of medicine with the promise of ‘wonder drugs’ that would seek to tackle diseases at a genetic level – either by re p l a c i n g defective genes or by instructing genes to behave in a particular way to produce a desired result. In agriculture genetics is hailed as benefiting the third world through improving crop yields, and in court rooms there are benefits by way of DNA fingerprinting that help to prove the guilt or innocence of suspects. There is no doubt that these are worthy goals but what of the risks? On this aspect our past experience with medical ‘breakthroughs’ provide us with valuable lessons for the future. T h e re is, unfortunately, more than enough evidence to show that man has a tendency to overstate the benefits whilst understating the risks of new medicines. This has eff e c t i v e l y allowed scientists to use humans as guinea pigs for their ‘research’ and for drug companies to make billions in the process. The situation resultant from past discoveries and drugs is so bad that we do not know how many of the medical problems being treated by doctors today are due to nature and how many are due to the side-effects of synthetic medicines prescribed by them to cure other ills. This ignorance is startling – if one looks at the range of anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills as an example, it is alarming to note that opium, alcohol, cocaine and even heroin w e re all once favoured tre a t – ments recommended by doctors. M o re recently the group of medicines known as benzo- diazypines (e.g. Valium) has been 5The Review of Religions – June 2003 Notes and Comments a popular treatment, with doctors issuing nearly 60 million p rescriptions in the 1980s in Britain alone. Yet all these have substantial side effects that can c reate a vicious circle of sub- sequent drug treatment and dependence for the patient. One critic encapsulated this problem well by saying that, ‘The most serious problems have generally arisen not because doctors didn’t know enough – but because so many behaved as if they did.’ (p.13, Power and D e p e n d e n c e, by Charles Medawar). This would also serve as a useful warning for potential genetic treatments; in fact the issue of genetics is far more serious because of its potential impact, not just on people today but in the future as well – because genetic treatment can impact human germ cells that may manifest their effects in subsequent generations. T h e re are also other pro b l e m s that result from our incomplete knowledge. As noted above even the current map has ‘some gaps’ and these gaps could be crucial. A d d i t i o n a l l y, each human is different and his genetic make up (consisting of his share of good and defective genes) is different, therefore a treatment based on one person’s genome sequence, or even several sequences, may not be suitable for another. This is further complicated by the fact that the same genetic code sequence (that scientists seek to use and manipulate) may or may not prompt a cell to act in a particular way, as this is also dependent upon the context of the sequence, and we do not know how this is determined. Thus the risks of ploughing ahead and formulating tre a t – ments in an attempt to meet expectations or simply to experiment are phenomenal. The debate that surrounds the use of Genetically Modified [GM] crops also highlights the risks well – with GM crops there is serious concern regarding their effect on regional ecosystems as the genetic modifications work their way through the food chain. The problem is that once you initiate the use of GM crops you cannot control the boundaries of the experiment or worse still call things to a halt if things start to go wrong. Genetic re s e a rch in medicine faces similar issues. 6 The Review of Religions – June 2003 Notes and Comments However, the temptation to play dice with God’s creation is overwhelming and it is impossible for this knowledge not to be used for personal gain. It is remarkable that the dangers associated with genetics were highlighted in a Divine book over 1400 years ago. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rehma’ullah) underlined this in his book Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Tr u t h that the Qur’an warns that Satan would effect a change in the creation of Allah and it goes on to say that ‘…he who takes Satan as a friend besides Allah has certainly suffered a manifest loss’ (Ch.4: v.120). The Qur’anic warning is stark that such work being is driven forward by a satanic impulse and can lead to a ‘manifest loss’. Such a warning should instil the utmost caution and in any research in this area. In reality this desire to experiment is practically irrespressible because the goal is in essence a search for the elixir of life. The desire for immortality either in person or by reputation is a repeating theme in human history – the narratives regarding the Egyptian Pharaohs are a good case in point – and now man once again believes he has immortality within his grasp. This characteristic of immortality was expressed by Pro p h e t Socrates (as) who said that, ‘Love of fame, and the desire to achieve something that will never die, are e x t remely powerful emotions. For this fame and glory, even m o re than for their childre n , people are ready to run risks, spend their wealth, endure every kind of hardship, and even lay down their lives…their desire for lasting renown and high reputation is the incentive for numerous actions; the stronger the people are, the greater is the incentive. People are in love with i m m o r t a l i t y.’ (The Symposium 202a – 202c) With such emotions at play and with so much at stake it would be ironic indeed if the discovery that led to the unravelling of the human genome also resulted in the undoing of man. Fareed Ahmad, UK 7 Message from Heaven The Review of Religions – June 2003