Monday, January 28, 2008

Potential Dangers of Genetic Engineering—A Case Study

To see an example of disastrous consequences arising out of genetic manipulation on animals, one need look no further than the recent experience of noted medical researcher Dr. Peter Gallanis. Gallanis, a Max Plank Research Fellow and Professor of Genetics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, has since the 1970s conducted extensive research on telomeres, tiny strands of DNA-protein attached to linear chromosomes in the body that allow replication without loss. Since telomeres shorten each time a cell divides, and continuously erode as an animal ages, many scientists believe they hold the key to aging.

By the mid-1980s Gallanis' research had isolated the genetic factors controlling cell division and telomere length, and he began the process of creating telomerase gene sequences that could maintain telomere length despite cell division—thus indirectly interrupting the aging process. Gallanis' initial work with fruit flies was encouraging, and he quickly began full-scale experimentation implanting his genetically altered material into mice. Again, the results were remarkable. In 1992 Gallanis published a landmark paper in the British research journal Nature chronicling his team's success in predictably extending the normal 2-year life span of mice to 5 years and more.

Anxious to apply his research to longer-lived organisms, Gallanis in 1990 began his highly-publicized experiments with porpoises. Using a grant from the National Institutes of Health, he retrofitted an old student swimming pool on the Duke campus and solicited donations of older animals from public aquariums up and down the East Coast. After some initial setbacks, Gallanis soon found that his subjects benefited greatly from the organ transplant drug cyclosporin. His staff would administer the drug to the porpoises in a paste made from the meat of a seagull native to the North Carolina coast. Soon, the combination of weekly injections of genetically altered DNA and daily cyclosporin treatment created a group of animals that displayed the genetic characteristics of a much younger population, with no measurable shortening of telomere length upon cell division. As early as 1997 word was circulating in scientific circles that Dr. Gallanis and his team had succeeded in creating a genetically-modified race of porpoises with potentially indefinite life spans. By all known scientific tests, their aging process had stopped completely.

It should go without saying that throughout the 1990s the pressures on Dr. Gallanis and his team to maintain their experiments on porpoises and proceed to a publishable result were enormous. With the commercialization of his work potentially worth billions of dollars, Gallanis found it increasingly necessary to avoid contact with colleagues and the press. He adopted a routine of taking his Land Rover to the Carolina coast almost weekly. An avid hunter, he would personally shoot the seagulls to be used in his cyclosporin treatments.

It was during one such hunting trip in September 1999 that disaster struck. Floyd, a massive Category 4 hurricane was making its way up the eastern seaboard and forcing the evacuation of barrier islands from Florida to New England. On the evening of September 15, 1999 Dr. Gallanis loaded three ice chests filled with seagulls into the back of his Land Rover and headed inland. The winds were already peaking at 50 miles per hour, and rain was lashing the roads.

Hurricane Floyd was to have another victim that day. A truck from a statuary business in Beaufort, South Carolina was passing through eastern North Carolina, bound for Washington, DC. Strapped to its flat bed were two small lions, carved in slate, that had been commissioned for the entrance of a new Senate office building annex that was under construction near the US Capitol. The truck was driving into a particularly bad curve on the Highway 1 Bypass near Wilmington when a combination of wind and treacherous road conditions forced its driver to swerve wildly. In the process the two sculptures were thrown from the truck, directly into the oncoming lane of traffic.

It was at that precise moment that Dr. Gallanis rounded the curve in the other direction. He saw the sculptures in the road, but there was no time to stop. Fortunately, thanks to quick reflexes and the high ground clearance of his Land Rover, he was able to successfully straddle the sculptures with no harm to his vehicle.

Dr. Gallanis was just breathing a sigh of relief at his good fortune when he saw the lights of a police car behind him. He pulled off the road and was immediately arrested for transporting gulls across slate lions for immortal porpoises.

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