Observations Only Connect

Medicine may change our genes

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39580.445856.59 (Published 15 May 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1101
  1. Nicholas A Christakis, professor of medical sociology, Harvard Medical School, and attending physician (with an emphasis on palliative medicine), Mt Auburn Hospital, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  1. christak{at}hcp.med.harvard.edu

    The prospect of medical technology modifying genetic evolution is as amazing as it is troubling

    A lot of hot air is around at the moment—and quite a bit of overselling—about advances in genetics, personalised genomics, and gene therapy. Only a small part of the variance in human illness is explained by genetics; most is explained by lifestyle, behaviour, and social factors such as poverty. Yet large sums are spent in a quixotic pursuit of the genetic basis for everything.

    The hope—some say fear—is that we will be able to use advances in medical technology to reshape the genome of individual patients, curing ailments by changing somatic genes. Some even hope that we will be able to modify our species for the better by introducing changes into our germline.

    Ethicists hotly debate this topic, arguing about the case for or against “perfection.” Do we have the right to develop technologies that would allow us to change the human genome? Some would say this is a duty. After all, if we could develop a …

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