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How medical technology is changing who we are

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OTTAWA — This series was first aired on CBC Radio over a six-day period beginning on January 6, 2002 and is reposted with permission.

Hardly a week goes by without yet another breathless announcement of a great breakthrough in medical technologies.

We’re told that these technologies will make it possible, in the not-too-distant future, to clone ourselves; custom-design our children; genetically manipulate our intellect and physical prowess; and meld our minds with the artificial intelligence of computers.

The ethical issues are profound; the controversies, enormous.

Bob Carty explores these issues in this six-part radio documentary series for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Part One – “Who is the Guinea Pig?” A documentary on xenotransplantation, the transplantation of living cells, tissues and organs from one species to another. Proponents xenotransplantation could save thousands of lives, and end the ordeals of patients who wait, often in vain, for organ donations. But there is also fear that xenotransplants could set off a pandemic on the scale of HIV and AIDS. Bob Carty profiles xeno trial participant Jim Finn, a man who has a very personal stake in the technology: his own life.

Listen to Part One

Part Two – “Another You.” A look at the science of cloning (nuclear transfer technology) and the heated debate it generates. Interviewed are strong advocates of human cloning and equally strong opponents. The program also explores the epigenetic problems so far encountered in animal cloning.

Listen to Bob Carty talk to host Shelagh Rogers about cloning

Part three – A Better Baby. An examination of inheritable genetic modification – what is sometimes called the creation of “designer children.” A proponent of germline modification (Gregory Stock – UCLA Medical School) and a critic (ethicist George Annas) square off. Biologists and legal experts join the discussion.

Listen to Carty talk to host Selagh Rogers about the new eugenics

Part Four – A Better Me. A look at somatic gene modification – or gene therapy – with a profile of 63-year-old Clayton Parsons whose heart arteries appear to be repairing themselves due to an injection of naked DNA. The program also examines the ethical issues surrounding the tragic death of Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy trial and the perspectives of disabled activists on society’s obsession with improving ourselves and rejecting those who are different.

Listen to Carty talk to Selagh Rogers about gene therapy

Part Five – Cyborg Society. Johnny Ray had a stroke so severe he could not move a single muscle. Although his mind remained alert, he could not communicate with the world. In a unique breakthrough, his doctors attached electrodes to his brain cells and through amplification into a laptop computer, Johnny Ray learned how to use thoughts to move the computer cursor. Johnny can now communicate with the world. We talk with Johnny Ray’s doctor, Phil Kennedy, and with Kevin Warwick, the man who wants to be the world’s first Cyborg. This program also explores the promises and perils of nanotechnology.

Listen to Carty talk to Selagh Rogers about the Cyborg Society

Part Six – Stem Cell Research. A visit to Advanced Cell Technology, the Massachussetts company that recently cloned the first human embryo. We also hear from advocates of adult stem cell research. This program concludes the series with some reflections on the kinds of controls or regulations needed for these new technologies.

Listen to Carty talk to Selagh Rogers about how to save humans from science