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Whitehead conference addresses societal impact of gene research

More than 800 students, faculty, attorneys, judges, physicians, high school teachers, genetic counselors and consumer advocates participated in last week's three-day conference, "Genes and Society: Impact of New Technologies on Law, Medicine and Policy," organized by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics.

"Conferences like this one are good for the country," said US Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. In his plenary talk on the final day of the program, Justice Breyer surveyed the potential impact of new genetic technologies on the law, from family and patent law to the regulation of health care and the environment. He explained that legal institutions depend on the existence of mature public debate to advance decision making.

Using gene patenting as an example, he said, "what might seem to be a purely legal question actually requires input from economists, scientists, the biotech industry and many other sources." He encouraged the diverse audience to help build the framework for the future by participating in public discussions and sharing their expertise with others.

Professor of Biology David Page, co-chair of the conference and chairman of Whitehead's Task Force on Genetics and Public Policy, agreed. "This conference provided an extraordinary opportunity for people from different fields to share their ideas and concerns. I was particularly struck by the lines of people at the microphones during the Q and A. We learned as much from the audience as they learned from us."

The conference began on Wednesday, May 10 with a "Primer on Modern Biology" for nonscientists. Professor Page and Whitehead Fellow Dr. George Daley introduced more than 200 early registrants to the concepts and vocabulary of DNA research, gene therapy, cloning and molecular medicine.

The following morning, Whitehead's Dr. Eric Lander described the changes in medicine that will emerge as a result of knowing the complete sequence of the human genome, and Dr. Mary Claire-King of the University of Washington discussed "Genomic Views of Human History." Dr. King said the concept of race has no basis in genetics and explored the differences between genetic evolution and cultural evolution.

Other plenary speakers during the conference included Dean Joseph Martin of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Aristides A. Patrinos of the Department of Energy, and Dr. Harold Varmus, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. On Thursday evening, the Whitehead Institute held a special dinner honoring Dr. Varmus and Justice Breyer for their contributions at the interface of science and society.

The remainder of the conference consisted of 13 concurrent workshops, covering topics ranging from DNA forensics to genetically modified foods, and a plenary panel on genetic determinism and human faith. Discussions in the workshops sometimes grew heated -- such as the debate on genetic research in populations between Dr. Kari Stefansson, president and CEO of deCode Genetics in Iceland, and Professor Henry T. Greeley of Stanford Law School.

In the session on stem cells, Professor Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania shared the podium with the Rev. Kevin Fitzgerald, a Jesuit priest. The panel titled "The Food Wars," featured Professor of Biology Gerald R. Fink, Whitehead director; Dr. Ray Goldberg of Harvard Business School; and Dr. Rebecca Goldburg of the Environmental Defense Fund.

"The overall program presented a rich tapestry of viewpoints," Professor Fink said. "At the Whitehead Institute, we believe that scientists have a responsibility to encourage public discussion about the impact of their research. We have made this conference a biennial event and we're looking forward to 2002."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 17, 2000.

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