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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
Fear Factor
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Nanotechnology

Photograph courtesy of UCLA Micro and Nano Manufacturing Laboratory

Molecular biology and the information sciences have developed a close partnership since the 1980s, the decade that began with the revolution in microelectronics and went on to spawn the Information Age and the Gene Age.

SUCH IMMEDIATE CHALLENGES, however, are not the source of our deep angst about biotechnology. Our real fears come from more distant possibilities that could be far more difficult and divisive. Three basic realms are apparent. The first is the reshaping of our biology. What if we could unravel the processes of aging and learn to retard, or even reverse, critical aspects of it? This is a key focus of regenerative medicine, and its success would affect virtually every aspect of human society. People often tell me they don’t think it’s a good idea to extend the human life span. Then they sometimes whisper, “but put me on the list.”

A second thorny area is our mounting reliance on pharmacology not just to heal ourselves but to manage our emotional states. Such “cosmetic psychopharmacology” will be increasingly challenging in coming decades. Ritalin, Viagra, Prozac and other such drugs are only clumsy baby steps. The potential is now emerging to short-circuit the emotional programs that have arisen in our evolutionary history to direct our behavior so as to further survival and reproduction. The depth of the challenge is illustrated by the rising problem of obesity. Humans were simply not made to live in a pastry shop. If someday we can take a pharmaceutical cocktail to make us feel happy and fulfilled, will we say no? Should we?

Another area where biotechnology challenges us is reproduction. Setting aside the familiar low-tech methods of mate selection, we can anticipate the arrival of three high-tech procedures to let us consciously choose our children’s genes. The first is reproductive cloning. Media obsession with this is due more to the symbolism of such an alteration of human reproduction than to any plausible consequences of the occurrence. After all, here is a technology that does not yet exist for humans, and yet enormous global attention has greeted the flimsiest of claims about the procedure. Even more importantly, fear that someone, somewhere, might clone a child has generated serious attempts to criminalize basic biomedical research in regenerative medicine, endangering the hopes of real people with real diseases and real suffering.

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