The march of science

4.4 At the time of GATTACA’s release, some reviewers described the film as based on a ‘chillingly feasible premise’.[3] Others, however, thought the science to be suspect, commenting that ‘it is highly dubious whether any of the genetic engineering portrayed in the film will ever be possible’.[4]

4.5 The intervening years offer fresh insights into the plausibility of GATTACA’s underlying premise. In the six years since the film was released there have been many important developments in genetic science. Those that have received a deal of media coverage include:

  • the cloning of ‘Dolly the sheep’ (announced in 1997) and the subsequent cloning of other animals, including Australia’s first cloned merino ‘Matilda’ (2000);
  • sex-selection of embryos through a technique of sperm sorting (1998);
  • the completion of the first mapping of the human genome by the international consortium of scientists involved in the Human Genome Project (1999);
  • the use of gene therapy by French researchers to treat severe combined immunodeficiency disorder in two infants (2000);
  • the alleged reproductive cloning of a human being by an Italian doctor, Dr Severino Antinori, and by the Raelian Movement (2002); and
  • the advent of ‘designer babies’, such as the case of a deaf lesbian couple in the United States who consciously chose a deaf sperm donor to increase the chance of conceiving a baby with the same disability (2002).

4.6 In addition to advances in genetic science and technology, there have been rapid developments in the uses to which existing genetic technology has been put. For example, the Australian artist Pro Hart has begun to incorporate his genetic material in his paintings in order to facilitate authentication of his artworks and avoid forgery.[9] One United Kingdom biotechnology company, Sciona, has begun to market an over-the-counter genetic testing service, linking dietary advice to variations on nine selected genes thought responsible for producing enzymes involved in general ‘body maintenance’.[10] More frivolously, the New York Times has reported that DNA parentage tests are being used as a basis for a television game show in which a talk-show host announces the test results on air before the putative parents and a studio audience.[11] And one English firm has begun to market ‘the ultimate personalised gift’—a piece of unique jewellery that incorporates the donor’s DNA.[12]

4.7 While it is difficult to predict the course of human progress with any pretence of accuracy, the Inquiry is of the view that a number of nascent developments in genetic medicine, science and technology will place increasing pressure on the central issues confronting this Inquiry. These include:

  • The further development of gene chip or micro-array technology, which will enable a large number of genetic tests to be performed on a sample simultaneously.
  • The likely reduction in the costs of genetic testing as technology is refined and adopted more widely in the community. In such circumstances there may be increasing pressures on governments, employers, insurers and others to uncover genetic information about individuals with whom they interact.
  • The likely increase in the speed of genetic testing, enabling testing to be carried out in minutes rather than days. This may open up the possibility of using genetic screening in new situations, such as border control.
  • The expanding medical understanding of the role of genetics in common diseases and conditions (such as asthma and hypertension), as well as expanding pharmacological understanding of the role of genetics in the metabolism of drugs.
  • The expanding understanding of the role of genetics in the expression of a range of non-medical traits, including human behaviours such as aggression and addiction.
  • The expansion of genetic screening across broad population groups, facilitating the collection of an unprecedented amount of sensitive health information about individuals and communities. Examples in Australia include school-based screening for Tay-Sachs disease and employment-based screening for haemochromatosis through the HaemScreen program. Other countries are developing broader genetic screening programs.
  • The increasing capacity of information technology to provide rapid access to personal information (including genetic information) stored in disparate locations. Bioinformatics may permit the linkage of health data from disparate sources, including newborn screening cards, pathology samples, research studies and clinical records. In doing so, the linkages may create new and powerful information, but also heighten concern about the privacy of such information.
  • The introduction of personal identification cards that containing biometric information, including genetic information, and which may be used in a variety of contexts such as access to public services and immigration control.
  • Increasing pressures from commercialisation, whether that be from governments selling population genetic data to researchers, as in Iceland, Estonia and Tonga; biotechnology companies seeking entrance to niche markets; large pharmaceutical companies seeking to profit from advances in pharmacogenetics; or individuals seeking to patent human genes or genetic processes.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J O’Ehley, GATTACA, <www.sciflicks.com/gattaca/review.html>, 16 February 2003.

[5] ABC Science Online, Australia's First Cloned Sheep and Calf, <www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/
s123089.htm>, 16 February 2003.

[6] R Dobson, ‘Gene Therapy Saves Immune Deficient Babies in France’ (2000) 320 British Medical Journal 1225.

[8] D Teather, Lesbian Couple Have Deaf Baby by Choice, The Guardian, 8 April 2002, <www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,680616,00.html>, 19 February 2003.

[9] O Hill-Douglas, Cheeky Pro Hart puts DNA Signature on his Paintings, The Age Company Ltd, <www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/03/06/1015365716233.html>, 20 February 2003.

[10] Sciona, describes itself as ‘commercialising research in the areas of nutrigenomics and pharmacogenomics in order to create a range of services that enhance people's lives and well-being.’ See Sciona Ltd, About Sciona, <www.sciona.com/about/index.htm>, 22 July 2002; J Meek, ‘Genetic Testing Rules "Unenforceable"’, The Guardian, 4 June 2002.

[11] A Stanley, ‘In DNA Tests, TV Finds Elixir to Raise Ratings’, New York Times, 19 March 2002.

[12] DesigNAgifts, <www.designagifts.co.uk>, 16 February 2003.

[13] See GenomeWeb Staff Reporter, Microarray Market Could Top $5 Billion by 2010 Study Says, <www.genomeweb.com/articles/view.asp?Article=2003212115041>, 16 February 2003, predicting high growth in the micro–array market over the next decade.

[14] J Robertson, ‘The $1000 Genome: Ethical and Legal Hurdles’ (2003) 4 Nature Reviews Genetics 82, discussing the development of faster and cheaper ways of whole-genome genotyping of individuals.

[15] HaemScreen is a pilot genetic screening program for haemochromatosis run by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Genetic Health Services Victoria at the Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne.

[16] An example is the UK Biobank, which aims to track 500,000 volunteers for a research study aimed at establishing how genes, lifestyle and environmental factors interact to affect people's health. See The UK Biobank, <www.ukbiobank.ac.uk>, 19 February 2003.

[17] See Secretary of State for the Home Department, Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud: A Consultation Paper (2002), London, 104, which considers but rejects as ‘too invasive’ the use of DNA information in an identity card.