People 2.0

Under a microscope in an ordinary-looking lab housed in a nondescript industrial park, I peered at immortal human cells. They looked sleeker than their mortal cousins. At the Geron Corporation, a biotech firm in Menlo Park, California, scientists have apparently discovered how to keep healthy human cells dividing indefinitely. This genetic breakthrough is astonishing, and the long-term consequences are incalculable. When I visited the lab in mid-March, Geron's genetically altered cells had already thrived two-and-a-half times longer than their expected natural life span. And they were still dividing.

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Scientists associated with Geron theorized that animal cells are programmed to divide a fixed number of times in their lives, and that these program instructions are coded on the ends of the cells' chromosomes. The ends erode with each cell division; after a preset number of divisions and erosions, cells stop dividing and begin to degrade. A year ago, Geron cloned a gene that produces telomerase, an enzyme that keeps rebuilding the ends of chromosomes. Then the scientists transferred this gene into a young, healthy cell—and, voilà, the cell hasn't stopped dividing, nor has it mutated into a cancerous form.

This breakthrough has a host of potential therapeutic applications, but Geron is focused on three. The first is as a possible cure for cancer. Now that scientists have figured out how to keep cells dividing indefinitely, the flip side could be discovering how to make malignant ones stop. If a cancer cure proves elusive, Geron hopes medical researchers may still be able to use the discovery to treat diseases associated with aging—e.g., retinal decay, hardening of the arteries, osteoporosis. And if all else fails, a fallback revenue plan could be to use this technology to treat wrinkles.

When venture capitalists, pharmaceutical giants, and stockholders have put $118.5 million into your company, you take what you can get as quickly as you can get it. Geron patented the use of telomerase before it knew what the biotechnology might actually be able to do. Prospective patents have been crucial to Geron because the fledgling company was in a frantic race with five other firms to reverse cellular aging and to become a leading player in the new "eugenics revolution."

Walter Funk, the very bright molecular biologist who showed me around Geron, immediately objected to my associating his company's work with the term "eugenics," which he said was based on bad science. Obviously, scientists are wary of a word that conjures up images of the Final Solution. However, the term still offers an apt warning.

Eugenics was first defined in 1883 by English anthropometrist Sir Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, as the "science of improving the stock." Because it was seen as a cutting-edge science, eugenics took root in America and imparted respectability to exclusionary immigration laws, which limited the entry not just of those with hereditary diseases but of entire ethnic groups, as well. Eugenics even made its way into the Supreme Court, which in 1927 upheld compulsory sterilizations in the case of Buck v. Bell. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the most progressive justice of the era, wrote, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Of course, you could argue that Holmes was simply a product of his time. H.H. Goddard, a prominent American researcher, had recently coined the word "moron" to designate "high-grade" mental defectives. Delineating these people by slightly subaverage scores on primitive IQ tests, Goddard judged them to be more dangerous than obvious idiots because their gene pool might proliferate. Goddard favored keeping "morons" happily segregated in colonies where they could be prevented from breeding.

Adolf Hitler praised American eugenics in Mein Kampf and convinced his nation that defectives shouldn't just be segregated or sterilized—they should be eradicated. Once the Nazis took the eugenics movement to its extreme, no one dared use the term. After World War II, the University of London renamed its Department of Eugenics as the Department of Human Genetics, and numerous other institutions around the world followed suit. But whether you call it "eugenics" or "human genetics," the impulse is still to upgrade the stock of the human race.

Medical miracle cures are everyone's stated aim, but other modifications are enticing. If we can change an embryo to reduce the possibility of cancer, why shouldn't we simultaneously reduce the possibility of obesity or baldness? We could confidently raise not just a disease-free baby girl, but a little girl with blue eyes and blond hair, likely to grow into a perfectly proportioned woman with an enhanced reasoning capacity.

Scenarios like this aren't publicly discussed by budding biotech firms or scientists seeking government grants. America's eagerness to seize the future is shadowed by our fear that the future might seize us. Our businesslike attitude toward the transformation of human nature is punctuated with bursts of hysteria. Few people paid much attention to biotechnology until Dolly. Then, three days after the cloned sheep was introduced to the public, President Clinton asked a panel to consider the expansion of federal powers over human embryo creation. Soon the Senate began debating anti-cloning bills. It didn't matter that the scientist who cloned Dolly has yet to repeat the feat. What mattered was that biotechnology exploded into our consciousness in a Frankensteinian fashion.

The problem is, the biotech revolution is not always going to happen as dramatically—or as publicly. Instead, it's going to come day by day, step by step. Scientists from the University of Colorado discover in pond scum a protozoan that makes large amounts of telomerase; they decode the genetic structure and later find a matching sequence in human DNA. The University of Colorado licenses this discovery to Geron, which rushes to make a human cell momentarily immortal so that the company can secure patents and keep competitors at bay. "We've sewed the [legal] bag pretty tight," Geron's Funk told me. Legal control encourages pharmaceutical giants such as Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. to sign a $58 million collaboration agreement, which increases the pressure to deliver profits before the patents run out.

Even without pressure from multinational drug companies, American aggressiveness probably would not allow any genetic insight, once gained, to lie fallow. The whole nature of American inventiveness can be summed up by the insidious Nike slogan: "Just Do It." And that results in a mad, government-approved race among biotech companies to patent findings before considering just how corporate control of the human blueprint might affect our species.

One characteristic driving Americans to pioneer genetic upgrades is our abiding fear of imperfection. This country was founded on Protestant principles, including the idea of salvation. Many of us keep searching for more impressive ways to prove our internal worth. We're eager to engineer evolution because we're restless with who we are.

But this drive to enhance our worth will soon present us with a fundamental choice: Should we use biotech for human breeding? Genetic science is more likely to come up with a test that tells which embryos are prone to develop cancer prematurely than it is to come up with a cancer cure. Diagnosing an embryo should prove easier and cheaper than reversing disease in a fully grown adult. Given a choice between fetuses that have perhaps 20 years' difference in their likely life spans, which would you choose?

If the United States bans such practices, richer parents may go to, say, Saudi Arabia. That's where a British doctor recently set up a test-tube clinic that allows sex-selection because the practice is illegal in Great Britain. Those parents who select little Johnny over little Janie because he'll be robust aren't likely to tell their neighbors. Legal and moral complications aside, they'd probably want Johnny's vivacity to be seen as an inevitable reflection of their own virtues.

In fairness, the earnest scientists who are pioneering these genetic breakthroughs don't want their work to be misused. As Funk put the immortalized cells back into their high-tech incubator, he noted that "every dirt-poor village in India has a sonogram" so that parents can distinguish boys from girls and get rid of the latter. Before he came to Geron, Funk was a graduate student in a lab that sampled placentas in order to tell parents with a history of hemophilia whether their in utero children carried the disease. But, he was quick to add, "no one ever had an abortion." They used the information, he said, solely to ensure that all medical precautions would be taken for a safe hospital delivery.

Of course, if you were considering aborting a hemophiliac child, would you inform the test lab?

Laboratory scientists can't be expected to question progress closely. A few years ago, I did some reporting at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California, one of three U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. Almost all the physicists and engineers I met believe they are perfecting nuclear weapons for the good of mankind. Given the absence of a superpower enemy, the more apparent reason these scientists persist is because they love their field. Lawrence Livermore has an elaborate, color-coded security system; barbwire enclaves restrict access even inside of highly classified zones. The highest status, however, is awarded not for the greatest access. Rather, you enter the most select club when one of your bomb designs makes it all the way to a test detonation.

Most biotechnologists want to set off their own version of the big one. Biotech startups have an equally naked drive: They want to show enough profit potential to be bought out by the multinational pharmaceuticals. And these big boys simply want to stimulate consumer demand and control markets, whatever the consequences. In the marketplace that we've deified, few moral checks and balances remain. Our great research universities, for example, don't want ethical considerations to limit their own biotech royalties.

Does the nature of such seekers influence the outcome of the search? Yes. Character is as powerful as DNA in the shaping of destiny. A cure for cancer would be astonishing, but do we really want to experiment with a genetic solution for wrinkles? What is this agelessness that we yearn for so badly, except a desire to escape the weight of our history and experience?

From the pond comes another primal insight. In Greek mythology, Narcissus is so beautiful that he is unable to love anyone else. Instead, seeing his image reflected in a still pool, he falls in love with it. But all his efforts to touch, to caress, to embrace that reflection cause it to distort and disappear. Unable to relinquish the image of his own perfection, Narcissus dwindles into the narcissus flower we know today. Since he lacked the ability to embrace those creatures he deemed less perfect, the gods moved him down the chain of being.

Three or four generations from now, elites may have been genetically reshaped through selective breeding. Will these new people be grateful for the characteristics we picked? Or will they feel divorced from us in some undefinable way? Perhaps their longing for old-fashioned connectedness will be tinged with contempt. They may contend that we didn't transform human nature primarily for their sake, but for our own vanity.