From the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were a number of looming legal and ethical questions relating to the relatively new field of genetics research. With the Human Genome Project nearing its end, scientists were scrambling to claim discovery of various genes. Because it was such a new area of research and far abstracted from intuitive understanding, many of the important legal issues surrounding genetic research were unresolved. Among them was the issue of whether or not discovered genes were subject to patent. Despite the highly questionable nature of the practice, many companies began successfully filing patents on genes they discovered, speculating that they could make profit off whatever products were derived from the use of that knowledge.
Michael Crichton’s novel Next explores the issue of gene patenting, as well as issues of genetic engineering of humans and transgenic species. Most of his conclusions are pretty clear from reading the novel, but he’s kind enough to spell out his conclusions in the Author’s Note. His most evident claim is that gene patenting is wrong (Crichton, 543-546), but he also concludes that we need to “establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues (Crichton, 546-549);” we must “pass laws to ensure that data about genetic testing is made public (Crichton, 546-549);” we should “avoid bans on research (Crichton, 546-549);” and that rescinding the Bayh-Dole Act is imperative (Crichton, 549-551). Crichton manages to discuss the fringes of science and human experimentation without making claims that “scientists have gone to far,” or “we shouldn’t play god” and instead takes the more nuanced stance that we need to workout the ethical implications of genetic research that will inevitably take place so that we can properly regulate it; this opposed to the ad hoc approach of doing the research and then deciding its acceptability.
The book Next follows a number of characters all following interconnected stories. It begins following a private detective and bounty hunter, Vasco Borden, as he pursues a thief who made off with 12 stolen embryos: setting the scene for a tale of intrigue and corporate espionage (Crichton, 15-17). But after his pursuit goes South, the story turns to Alex and Frank Burnett in court over a legal claim against the University of California (Crichton, 36-38). Alex, Frank’s daughter and attorney, is helping him argue that the University treated him unjustly, leading him to believe he was sick so they could harvest his cells without his consent; the trial is not going well (Crichton 36-44). This is the setup for one of the major plot arcs of the book. Frank loses the case and the University is given the legal rights to harvest his cells to sell to BioGen, a company who patented his cell line. BioGen then takes the stance that it has ownership over Frank’s cell line which includes the cells of his offspring. Biogen seeks to harvest cells from him and then Alex and her son, leading him and Alex to become fugitives from Biogen, hunted by Vasco Borden. This arc is resolved when a higher court rules that BioGen cannot own the Burnett cell line.
This story is then tied in with the story of Rick Diel the CEO of BioGen. Diel is portrayed as a speculator with little concern for ethics; if there is a villain in Next, it is probably Diel. Diel is undergoing a divorce and tries to exploit the possibility his wife has Huntingtons to get custody; she does not want to get tested, yet he argues that if she is going to start experiencing neural degeneration while raising their daughter, that he would surely be more fit a parent. Thus he attempts to force her to undergo genetic testing she does not want, or else give in to his custody demands. His ploy works and his wife escapes him and his attorney — abandoning her custody rights in the process. All the while Diel is dealing with a number of security breaches which ultimately result in the destruction of the Burnett cell line, forcing him to attempt to harvest more cells, leading to the Burnett’s fleeing. Eventually, Diel’s schemes fail and he is forced to resign.
There are a number of other story arcs, all of which are deeply interconnected and revolve around BioGen. Most notably, is the story arc of researcher Henry Kendall, who finds his DNA has been used to create a transgenic ape-boy. Henry saves the ape-boy, whom he names Dave, from being executed to hide the illegal experiment and adopts him as a son. The specifics of how Dave came about discussed in detail as well as the challenges of raising a hybrid ape-boy in a human society. There is also a story arc following a BioGen researcher, Josh, who accidentally infects his brother with a vector that inserts in him the “maturity gene” he’s been researching. It initially seems to cure his brother’s drug addiction, but it leads him to age prematurely and die at 21 of heart failure. Aside from these, there are a number of side stories, all of which relate to modern genetics somehow.
About Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton (1942-2011) was an extremely successful author and screenwriter of science fiction. Today, he is probably best remembered for Jurassic Park, but he also wrote 16 other novels (including The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and The Great Train Robbery), as well as 5 non-fiction books, 11 books under a pseudonym, 2 original screenplays, and produced the hit TV show ER (crichton-official.com). In addition, he made many of his books into movies and helped make his novel The Andromeda Strain into a televisions series (crichton-official.com).
Part of Crichton’s success can surely be attributed to his deep understanding of science. Michael Crichton received his M.D. from Harvard where he graduated Suma Cum Laude (crichton-official.com). He then went on to study Biological Studies as a postdoctoral student at the Salk Institute (crichton-official.com). Crichton subsequently taught a number of college courses (crichton-official.com). As a scientist himself, Crichton understood that scientists were, like everyone else, capable of both good and evil. His books tended to take a nuanced view of scientists; they did not fall into the common trap of claiming that science had “gone to far,” but they also did not idolize science as the key to a utopian world. Instead, Crichton created a sense of wonder and awe in his work: showing how science could be exploited with horrible effects, but also explaining its many benefits to mankind. And the scientists in his stories were not all paragons or villains, but represented a vast array of archetypes and personalities.
The Human Genome Project and Genetic Engineering
The novel Next is centered around modern genetics research. The book was published in 2006 — just 3 years after the completion of the Human Genome Project — which serves as the cornerstone for that research. The Human Genome project began in 1990 and was ongoing till April 2003, when it was completed “ahead of schedule” and “under budget (nih.gov).” The goal of the project was to map the human genome so as to increase our general understanding of human DNA and help us to “understand the genetic factors in human disease (nih.gov).” This was done through the use of gene sequencing technology developed in the 1970s (nih.gov). As of 2013, the NIH reports that it has “fueled the discover of over 1800 disease genes (nih.gov).” The project has dramatically reduced the amount of time required to find disease genes — from several years to several days (nih.gov).
Specifically though, Next focuses on the issue of gene patenting that became common practice in wake of the project. In the book, the company BioGen claims the right to a man’s cells because they control the legal rights to parts of his DNA. While this seems absurd, it is an unfortunate legal ambiguity that arises as a result of allowing companies to patent scientific fact. As of 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that naturally occurring genes were not subject to patent (ScotusBlog). Prior to this, the practice of patenting naturally occurring genes had run rampant. According to National Geographic in 2005, just one year prior to the release of Next, one fifth of the human genome had been patented (nationalgeographic.com). As a result, genetic research became very difficult, since in order to study a particular gene, or develop any product using knowledge of a particular gene, scientists had to negotiate the right to do so with the patent holder of that gene. The purpose of the patent is to provide companies with incentive to do research, but gene patenting very clearly got in the way of that research.
Another area of difficulty for genetic patents is in the creation of genetically modified foods. Clearly a batch of seed genetically engineered to increase crop yield and resist disease is a product of specifically created human processes and is thus subject to patent. The problem is plants reproduce, and Monsanto, a major provider of genetically modified crops, is claiming farmers do not have the right to save the seed from the crops they plant from seed they buy from Monsanto (monsanto.com). They consider saving the seed to replant it to be producing their patented product (monsanto.com). While the courts have sided with Monsanto so far, the ruling is highly questionable. From a practical standpoint, its highly inefficient and makes little sense to tell farmers they simply have to dispose of valuable seeds, just so they can by the same seeds from Monsanto; it seems almost vindictive. And from a more legally rational standpoint, the ruling doesn’t make sense because the farmers aren’t producing the seed using Monsanto’s patented process; the plants make the seed and the farmers simply have the good sense to use it.
Another field brought up in Next was genetic engineering — specifically, the study and creation of transgenic species. Genetic engineering can refer to any means of trying to manipulate genetic structure; in some sense, breeding plants and animals to produce certain traits is genetic engineering. However, in the book and in the common usage, genetic engineering refers to methods of splicing genes from one organism into another, by cutting and combining separate strands of DNA (“Playing God”). In “Playing God,” the second episode in a five part PBS documentary series, a number of scientists, in particular Herbert Boyer, explain the the nature of genetic engineering, its founding, and its evolution as a science. According to the documentary, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen discovered a process for recombining DNA (“Playing God”). The basic idea is that they “cleave” the DNA, cutting off a piece using certain enzymes, and then insert cleaved DNA from another organism in its place (“Playing God”). Boyer later used this process to attach human insulin producing cells to bacteria — thus creating a method to efficiently mass produce insulin to treat diabetics (“Playing God”). Many other drugs are synthesised using similar processes (“Playing God”). The documentary also talked about use of genetic engineering in food production to cut back on disease, and increase yield (“Playing God”).
Next explored the idea of having genes linked to human intelligence and brain development spliced into animals. Dave, an ape with near human intelligence, is such a creature in the story. Dave is not treated as an abomination by the story, but his existence raises a number of troubling questions. His “parents” enroll him in school, and while he functions well enough on a basic level, he has serious attention deficit problems and still exhibits ape like behavior, particularly when under stress. Towards the end of the story, he even responds to attacks on him by biting and throwing feces. The problem Dave creates is that he blurs the line between human and animal and thus makes it very difficult for us to identify his niche. He thinks, speaks, and is within the range of intelligence of other children his age, but he still isn’t quite human. Our society isn’t designed to meet his needs, yet it would be improper to treat him as a non-person. The book never makes judgement about whether or not transgenic species like Dave should exist, it merely raises some questions to consider about what that would mean for us and them. In many ways the book also seems to conclude that its an inevitability that they eventually will.
Genetic engineering is a fascinating and promising field, but its potential to blur the line between man and animal raises a number of ethical concerns. Next explores many of the issues surrounding the controversies of genetic engineering from last decade, many of which are still unresolved. It is encouraging that the Supreme Court ruled natural genes were scientific fact not subject to patent, but there are still many legal issues to be resolved surrounding genetic patents, because reproduction makes things tricky. And as for transgenics, those issues are still in the air as well. We already create transgenic species using human genes, though we have yet to create something that’s clearly a person, but not quite human. Crichton claims though, that it will come. Hopefully, we can answer the tough questions before it does; ad hoc is seldom a good approach to ethics.
“About Michael Crichton.” Constant Contact Productions.
http://www.crichton-official.com/aboutmichaelcrichton-biography.html. Web. July 3.
“Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.” SCOTUSblog. http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/association-for-molecular-pathology-v-myriad-genetics-inc/. 2014. Web. July 3. 2014.
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“One-Fifth of Human Genes Have Been Patented, Study Reveals.” National Geographic News. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/10/1013_051013_gene_patent.html.
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