Life Sciences: Should We Do It Because We Can?

Jan 13, 2004

Report by Al McClain

At this week’s FMI Midwinter Executive Conference, Juan Enriquez, founding director of Harvard Business School’s Life Science Project, made the case for pushing forward
with life sciences, in spite of the “yuck factor” that such developments as three winged chickens may provoke.

Against a background in food retailing where “natural” products compete for attention with those that have been modified by humans in increasingly unusual ways, Enriquez
made a strong argument for going full speed ahead with advances in life sciences.  As an example of how people’s attitudes change, he cited the case of Louise Brown,
the world’s first “test tube baby”, and how mainstream the practice of “artificial” pregnancies has become.  According to Enriquez, the biggest development in recent years
in life sciences occurred in early 2001, when the human genome was finally mapped, providing science with the code that will lead to making changes in life forms.

As examples of the possibilities of altering life forms, he cited malaria carrying mosquitoes and the possibility that they could be altered to actually vaccinate the animals
they infect.  Another could be altering vegetables to increase their cancer-fighting possibilities.  (So, would consumers prefer “natural” broccoli, or “cancer fighting”

Enriquez insists that we press forward with life sciences, focusing on the benefits to society. If we can alter genetic code to produce 3 winged chickens, why can’t we change
the code to enable people to grow limbs to replace those lost or replacements for organs ravaged by cancer, and so on.  And, he theorizes that we’ll be able to take
genetic code from extinct animals and bring species back to life, or save species on the endangered list. 

In other words, major scientific and medical breakthroughs may seem strange at first, but we’ll get used to them, and the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. 

Moderator’s Comment: Should the food manufacturing, retailing and related industries be actively promoting the advancement of life sciences as urged
by Doctor Enriquez?

Enriquez is effective in making the case for pushing science forward.  He even comes up with a pretty good argument for growing 3 winged chickens. 
And, who could argue that it would be great if we could cure cancer, stop paralysis, regrow limbs, etc.?   

Here are four concerns I have: 

1. What about the chicken?  Just because we CAN do things to animals doesn’t mean we should.  At what point do we say, enough? 

2. Who makes sure that all the life scientists are working for the common good?  How do we make sure all this learning stays in the right hands? 

3.  The big one for me:  What if something goes wrong?  Think about any point in history, and what we didn’t know about the future. 

4.  Where do we draw the line on personal choice?  If we can grow extra limbs, what if someone wants a child with extra long arms so they can
be a basketball star?  Or maybe they want a baby that doesn’t cry?  Or a cow that doesn’t moo?   

My vote is to proceed cautiously, but we let the politicians and regulators monitor this area heavily, so we don’t get in over our heads.  There are
enough wacky people in the world. We need to temper our enthusiasm for advances we are capable of making with some sophisticated insurance that they won’t lead to abuse.

McClain – Moderator

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