Wednesday, March 14, 2012

20. A Walk in Utopia (II)

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Times are changing, and now, looking back at Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we have a right to ask ourselves how ‘science-fiction-like’ his science-fiction novel is; the society he portrayed back in 1932 as operating on the principles of mass production and Pavlovian conditioning must have been overlooked at the time because of the social and political unrest looming large in Europe: a radical revision of the world order was under way, which culminated with the global conflict we now know as WWII. 

Human Beings: how surprising an adventure to understand them, or, rather, to try to find the essence of their be-have-do patterns (see The haves and have-nots around us I). But let’s not jump to conclusions yet; for the time being you’ll agree that we can affirm at least this: once an idea is born inside a person’s mind there’s nothing to stop it from developing. How else could we grasp the meaning of genetic engineering if not by considering the attempts on behalf of generations of scientists at discovering the secret of life?
Google Images: Genetic geneOlogy

So, why look into the DNA structure? Well, because it’s there!

The article you’ve read in the previous post speaks about exactly that: the adventure of looking into things. Surely, it’s not new anymore, for it was written some time before 1993, and what was then considered as theoretically possible (see article in A Walk in Utopia I) has developed into fact (history) and (still) [science-]fiction.

Whether the manipulation of human genes is meant for healing wounds (1j), treating pancreas dysfunction (2e), bone disease (4a), or preventing heart attack (5l), the underlying concept is the same: medical magic bullets directed to specific targets with a view to helping the organism against strokes (6h), lung cancer (7k), or diabetes (8d). But there’s no denying that prevention is better than cure, and this may well be the turning point in scientific research: the future is now, for the proceedings of biotechnology are supposed to advise on genetic therapy which, in turn, may give us super-babies (9b), bring about a Revolution (10i) in body information storage, correct inherited defects by means of drugs (11g) – all in all, lead to a complete understanding of disease (12c).
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It’s high time we listened to the expert: here’s Craig Venter, the one scientist under whose supervision the human genome was decoded, and his programme ‘A Voyage of DNA, genes, and the sea':
Now after watching Craig Venter’s film, and in the light of the advances of biotechnology mentioned in the article, the question arises: what advantages and disadvantages do you see to genetic engineering? Give examples of its uses, and try to draw the line between fiction and non-fiction yourself. Your comments will be, as always, welcome!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

19. A walk in Utopia (I)

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It is a fact that the what-if hypothesis is one of the most prolific argumentative tools since Socratic times. It helps the speaker's line of thought to follow paths of the imagination and, in so doing, it evinces Man as a rational being.
Now, I know what you're thinking: this goes too far back in time, it can't be one of those up-to-the-minute topics that thicken the air in the media. Well, in fact I should say it steps into the near future, and any exaggeration is far from getting even close to extended metaphor.

Reading skills
Read the newspaper article below and match the headings a – l with paragraphs 1-12.
a.      Bone Growth
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b.     Super-babies
c.     Understanding Disease
d.     Diabetes
e.     Pancreas
f.       Arthritis
g.     Drugs
h.    Strokes
i.       Revolution
j.       Healing Wounds
k.     Lung Cancer
l.       Heart attack Prevention

By Danae Brook
[Adapted from Distinction: English for Advanced Learners by Mark Foley & Diane Hall]

Proteins like epidural growth factors, made by biotechnology, will increase the speed at which bums, wounds and ulcers can heal. The proteins are already being marketed in Japan.
2.   ...
Pancreatic cancer is likely to be treated with magic bullets in ten years. These are antibodies which recognise the cancer cells and carry radioactive drugs to them but not to the surrounding cells.
3.   ...
Interferon, undergoing trials as a rheumatoid arthritis treatment, appears to reduce inflammation and pain. Other drugs are being tested.
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     4.   ...
Insulin-like factor (IGF), an ingredient which makes bones start to grow again, will be available in 20 years to revolutionise bone disease treatment. It is currently being tested on animals.
      5.   ...
TPA is one of the success stories of biotechnology. It quickly dissolves blood clots and stops heart attacks. Already saving lives, it does not stay in the body long, but studies suggest there could be longer-lasting versions.
Atrial natriuretic peptide, a newly discovered hormone, may help reduce risk of strokes. It may also be effective in other blood-related disorders.
7.   ...
All cancers may be helped by magic bullets - antibodies which carry drugs to cancer cells - and by proteins which stimulate growth of white cells. It is hoped that lung cancer may be stopped by chemically engineered drugs within 20 years.
8.   ...
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Biotechnology has made it possible to use human insulin to treat diabetes, so reducing the risk of infection. Pigs used to be the donors. Could work for other auto-immune diseases, such as AIDS, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.
9.   ...
Our babies may live to be more than 100. Perhaps 120. That is the gift of technology to the human race. Advances in medical science, in a field called biotechnology, mean super-babies may soon be a reality. Genes can actually be identified in the womb. Tomorrow we may alter them, although the prospect is so daunting the Government has set up a special steering committee to advise on ‘genetic therapy’. Genetic engineering is changing life. For people under 50 the implications are extraordinary.
10.                 ...
Scientists can actually take human strands of DNA (the chemical that stores information and controls all growth in our bodies) and correct any flaws they contain. Within 50 - 100 years it may be common practice. Patients are transformed by the artful science of genetic engineering, with which the scientist can ‘clone’ or copy the DNA strands, and put them back in the body, new, improved, and healthy.
'This could reverse the effect of virtually every disease the human body suffers,’ according to Dr Brian Richards, research scientist with the pharmaceutical company, British Bio-Technology. It will revolutionise the future.
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Developing drugs which copy nature by genetic engineering is now the strongest weapon in science’s armoury against killer diseases says Professor Sir David Weatherall, who is a specialist in genetic diseases and adviser to the Government on the ethics of what is now called genetic therapy, the possibility of one human being physically altering another.
‘Genetic therapy means correcting inherited defects in the womb, to make up for the absence of normal genes. We are not actually doing this yet... but we will be.’
The research and development on the drugs used in genetic engineering has been in existence for fifteen years. New drugs and vaccines are being created every day to beat hitherto fatal illnesses. There are around 50 genetically engineered drugs already on the market, treating diseases from open wounds and the common cold to leukaemia.
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Bio-technology is allowing us to understand the genetic basis of disease. Scientists can now decide what needs to be extracted from a strand of DNA by using a special chemical protein called an enzyme, which acts like a pair of scissors and snips off the unwanted DNA particles. New nucleotides or particles then rush in to correct and repair the damage. The repaired strands are then cloned in a lab and put into the body where they replace the flawed pieces of DNA.
We can do it in theory; but it may be many years before we do actually do it,’ cautions Dr June Grindley of British Bio-technology.