What's Next in Biotech

Gardner: What about cloning? We see on the cover of Time magazine this week two cloned babies and the comment "Human cloning is closer than you think." Is it closer than we think?

Ridley: I'm picking up these rumors, too, that it might almost have been done already, although I've no evidence for this. Certainly, there are people out there who are pressing to try it, there are a number of fertility clinics around the world that people have suspected might be having a go at it.

I think safe human cloning is a long way away, and I hope it doesn't catch on, because I don't think it is safe yet. There are a lot of problems with animal cloning: a lot of the animals are very overweight, a lot of the embryos die before they're born. It's not a [cut-and dried] procedure yet, so I think it would be wrong to try and do this rather experimental procedure on human beings as it now is.

The interesting thing about cloning is that if I had cloned myself, there's no way you'd need know that. I mean, you don't know what I looked like when I was two years old, so if I had a two-year-old, it could be a clone of me or it could be a natural child of mine. It would be very hard for people to tell.

So it's something where it's just possible that it may be done and remain secret for a long time.

Gardner: As fans of Austin Powers and the character Dr. Evil with his mini-clone, are you right now giving us an early indication of whether or not there will be a mini-Matt Ridley?

Ridley: There will definitely not be a mini-Matt Ridley, I can assure you of that. I have no interest in cloning myself one bit. I have a perfectly good natural son, and I would much rather he was him than a version of me.

Gardner: There's been a great deal in the news recently about privacy and genetic information, and a lot of talk about what happens with the entire industry of insurance, with all this information rolling out. If a single fingerprint left on a glass carries all of our genetic information, how can we possibly protect our genetic privacy in the future?

Ridley: It's a very good question. I feel it's very important to protect our genetic privacy, but I do agree if you're an investigative journalist after a political candidate, for example, during a campaign in the future, you might get his DNA analyzed. All you'd need would be, as you say, a glass that he drank from, or something like that where you could retrieve a cell from his body. You could read his genome, genotype it, and say, whoops, he's going to have the following characteristics....

Obviously that's for people in public life. For those of us who are not in public life, there is a real problem. The insurance industry needs to know what we're going to be suffering from, or rather, it needs to know if we're testing ourselves. Because if you and I go out and take a test for Alzheimer's disease susceptibility, and we find that I'm at much higher risk than you, then it's me that's going to go and buy the insurance, rather than you, and that's a real problem for the insurance industry, unless it knows that we're taking these tests. So, I think this question of genetic privacy is one that I'm not clear what the right answer is. I think what we need is a huge public debate about it.

Gardner: In your opinion, should I be more worried right now about commercial development of my genomic information, or more worried about government access to it?

Ridley: That's a good question. I think I'd be more worried about government access to it. I think the pressure for national DNA databases for use in forensic science is superficially very logical -- the idea that when a crime has been committed, they can automatically look up who it is that's committed it, if they've got a sample. But I just don't like the idea of the government having a sample of me.

Maybe that's a bit old-fashioned... but on the whole, the money in the commercial sector is behind things that will, in the end, benefit me. I mean, the commercial sector is not necessarily so interested in my genome, as what it can learn about genomes in general so it can develop new drugs.

Gardner: Two slightly more philosophical questions. First, given what we know about human genetics, how confident are you that all living things come from a single genetic source? Am I, and a tree, and a worm, and a moose, long-lost relatives?

Ridley: Absolutely, definitely, sure. I'm sure the genetic code is arbitrary, and there's only one of it, and there's no reason it is the way it is, it just happened. So that was the genetic code invented by our last, universal, common ancestor.... We're all descended from her.

Gardner: And now my personal, selfish, philosophical question. I'm 32 years old, my doctor says I'm in excellent health, I don't smoke, I eat pretty well, I exercise three times a week. Given advancements in the field of genetics, what age do you think I will live to?

Ridley: [Laughs] I think that by the time you start running into age-related diseases -- heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, things like that -- in your 70s (that's what, 40 years from now?) they will be very, very much more curable than they are now, so I see no reason for you not to live into your 90s. But I think, anything beyond that, and we've got to start tampering with your genes, and we should have done that before you were born.

Gardner: Matt Ridley, thanks a lot for joining us on the Motley Fool Radio Show.

Tom Gardner's stock holdings can be seen online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.

Back to An Interview With Matt Ridley, Part 1 »


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