Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The American Handyman

American handyman keeps tinkering

From The Statesman

ND Batra
Last Wednesday, the US Senate passed yet another resolution easing restrictions on stem cell research. Early in the year the House of Representative had passed a similar resolution. But President George Bush will veto the bill again because, he said, it crosses the moral line.

The rest of the world including private research institutions and universities, nonetheless, do not have to follow the dictates of the White House. The American handyman does not need funding from the US government. He keeps tinkering. Stem cell research is too important to be left at the mercy of the White House. Consider this: A few years ago an American woman gave birth to a girl whose genetic system was cleaned up at the embryonic stage to rid her of the certainty of Alzheimer’s disease. Without doing genetic tinkering at the embryonic stage, the girl would have gotten the defective gene of her mother, a thirty-year-old woman with the Alzheimer gene, who was destined to become victim of the disease.

Genes do shape our destiny; nevertheless, now you can eliminate the bad gene and have a different fate on earth, well, to a great extent. What it means is that there’s hope when life seems hopeless and that’s why everyone wants to do what the American handyman (with an MD or Ph.D.) is doing: look to science and technology, not astrology or some holly book, to solve the problem of human suffering and make living better. When in trouble, whom would you call, a cleric or handyman? The procedure as explained by Harvard Medical School professor, Dr Jerome Groopman (Read his latest book, How Doctors Think) in an article he wrote at that time for The Wall Street Journal, seemed very simple. It is called “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” (PGD), a technology that is nothing more than doing quality control before a machine, let’s say, an automobile, is built.

An in-vitro fertility doctor harvests eggs from the prospective mother, mixes them with her husband’s sperms in a petri dish, and lets the embryos grow. At this stage the doctor could select an embryo from the cluster of test tube embryos for the purpose of sex selection of the child (as some do in India and China); or he could go further. He could do genetic testing of all the embryos for a disease and select an embryo that’s free from the defective gene. Just as an automobile quality control engineer would reject a defective carburetor from a car on the assembly line, the fertility doctor in the case of the American woman chose an embryo that had no Alzheimer gene and threw away the rest that were defective, though they too had potential life in them.

If your are thinking whether in the future fertility doctors might develop methods of discovering violence-prone genes that could be eliminated in embryonic stage so that there will be no Hitler or Osama bin Laden, or other human scourges that will be expecting too much from the genetic tinkerer. (That should be the job of social engineers and early childhood educators.)

But this is not the only ingenious work that the American handyman has been doing. Remember how a few years ago he went to space to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the humankind’s spy on the cosmos. American astronauts rode the shuttle Columbia to rendezvous with the Hubble to replace its aging solar wings and upgrade its other instruments, and after two days of chase at 17,000 mph, they finally caught up with the space observatory 360 miles above the earth over the Pacific Ocean.

Using the Canadian-built robotic arm, the astronauts dragged the Hubble to the shuttle’s cargo bay area for repair and renovations, much like marine biologists tug a sick whale to shore to nurse it to health and then release it to do God’s work in the ocean. After hours of working in space, the space-walking handymen installed the new wings that gave the Hubble twenty percent more wattage and enabled its instruments including a new powerful camera and power system to work more efficiently, that’s, “to see the planets, stars and the universe better.” In spite of the leak in Columbia’s cooling system, it was not such a mission impossible because earlier too repairmen had been up into space for a tune up service on the Hubble. This was their fourth service call and the most daring.

I do not see any difference between a genetic handyman repairing an embryo to rid an unborn girl of a breast cancer-causing gene and a space handyman implanting new eyes, heart and nervous system on the old man Hubble, so that we could understand the universe. So I believe: It is absolutely ethical and courageous to transform stem cells into useful body parts. What amazes me the most is the eternal optimism in the United States that the American handyman will make the world a better place.

Perhaps the source of this self-renewing hope is the bastion of the nation’s core value, the free marketplace of ideas, a force so overwhelming that religious fundamentalism seldom raises its ugly head in the United States.

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