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Germany

Public Needs Better Understanding of Genetics, Expert Says

Genetically modified foods, test-tube babies -- the details of genetics can be hard to grasp. The president of the International Genetics Federation told DW-WORLD.DE about genetics' possibilities and challenges.

A scientist pipetting a DNA solution

Genetics could lead to medical breakthroughs

Alfred Nordheim has chaired of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Interfaculty Institute of Cell Biology at the University of Tuebingen since 1997. He was elected the president of the International Genetics Federation in 2008.

DW-WORLD.DE: Europeans are strongly opposed to genetically modified food. Is this opposition justified?

Alfred Nordheim: The current discussion reminds me very much of the one during the 1970s, as molecular biology was making genetic manipulation possible. At the time, very strict genetic engineering laws were passed. These were subsequently eased as fears were shown to have been excessive and unfounded.

Today's concerns about nutrients from gene-manipulated plants and animals are fundamentally justifiable, but they are excessive. Each newly developed food would be tested and checked before it came to market. I believe that for now Germany's existing regulation mechanisms are adequate.

The Nazi regime passed the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases Act 75 years ago which led to at least 400,000 people being sterilized and thousands being killed. The German Society of Human Genetics recently released a statement calling for the responsible use of genetic science on the anniversary. Is there still a danger that genetics could be misused?

Woman places stickers on food

Many Europeans oppose genetically modified foods

The recent statement clearly said that we cannot close our eyes to the historical events and that we recognize our complicity and accountability. Basic research must always be vigilant, especially in genetics.

But the danger posed by racist eugenics -- the choosing of human traits for succeeding generations -- has been drastically reduced to the point that it no longer has a place in German and international discussions of values.

Thirty years ago the first test-tube baby was born. Where do you think the line should be drawn in this area?

The question of reproductive medicine, which has to do with hereditary diseases of offspring, is a private one that must be clarified between parents and doctors at human genetics clinics. I do not want to openly enter into this discussion. But in contrast to the coercive state programs in the 1920s and 1930s is that today it is exclusively the individual's choice.

Do you think that genetics will remain controversial?

The term genetics is often not understood in its full conceptual breadth. Genetics is involved not only with the transmission of hereditary dispositions to future generations, but also cell divisions in a body and the use of genetic information from these cells. If that were properly understood, it would decrease reservations about genetic changes and stem cells.

In 2003, the human genome with its 3 billion base pairs was completely mapped, even so, this research remains in its infancy. It will open completely new applications in the biomedical field. One will be able, for example, to statistically compare the genetic sequences from tumor cells with those from healthy cells. This will provide new knowledge of how cancer is formed, which will also allow for better tumor therapies to be developed. It will also be possible to look at why individual patients do or do not respond to certain medications and to create individual therapies.

In what direction do you think gene research will develop?

In the coming years, genome sequencing will become faster and cheaper, so that in five or 10 years each individual who wants to will be able to get genome sequencing done for about 10,000 euros ($15,500). Such a sequence analysis could bring with it a lot of prognostic information.

Free will is important here. One must be able to decide, as an individual, what one wants to know and what the doctor or insurance company should and should not know.

Can this type of system work? Don't you think, for example, that insurance companies would find a way to misuse the system in order to get information?

This can work when we formulate good and comprehensible rules and also pass laws. Naturally, there can still be abuse. But if it happens then it would also be punished. Just because a small possibility for misuse exists doesn't mean we should stop all of the desirable outcomes from new development.

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