Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Genetic Discrimination

In America we pride ourselves on the fact that we have eliminated almost all forms of arbitrary discrimination in our political and criminal justice systems. I think this is a good thing and in many ways makes America so much better than the rest of the world. For example it is very difficult no matter how long you or your ancestors have lived in Germany for a "non German" to become a citizen. The same is true in Japan and many other countries of the world. Adapting to the language and the laws of your adopted country is not enough if your heritage is not correct. It is attitudes like these that made the fascism of Germany and Japan so vicious. The fascism may be gone but many of the attitudes that spawned that fascism remain.

Yet America, improving though it is, is far from perfect. There is one form of discrimination that is very popular among the majority of Americans. That discrimination is no different from racism which is in effect a genetic discrimination. This discrimination that is so popular is also a genetic discrimination but it's marker is not as obvious as skin color. It's marker is addiction. To sex, to food, to alcohol, to tobacco, to illegal drugs. When it comes to those marked by genetics for a possible illegal drug addiction we come down on them with the full weight of the law. We put them in jail, we steal their property, we make them subject to what can only be called gestapo raids at 3 AM in the morning. And like the good Germans we are, not only do we say nothing for fear of the gestapo coming to our doors, some of us actually applaud this effort to make the country safer from the Jews. I mean addicts. The horror of the effort to eliminate the Jews of Central Europe is not that it was a crime unique to Germany. The horror is that given the right propaganda it can be done by any government any where. Even in America.

The genetics of addiction is a very interesting subject. There appears to be a number of genes involved depending on the addiction. In some cases there are not enough copies of a gene to protect the body from addiction. This seems to be the problem in the case of tobacco addiction and the TPH 779C alle. In addition a version of the dopamine transporter gene (SLC6A3-9) seems to protect people to some extent from tobacco addictions. Carriers of this gene who do start the tobacco habit find it easier to give up than those who have a different version. In addition those with the D 2 dopamine receptor (DRD2) in addition to the SLC6A3-9 gene had even fewer problems with tobacco.

Another interesting finding in relation to the tobacco metabolizing protein that is controlled by the CYP2A6 alle is that there are different types of that gene in the body depending on whether one is Caucasian, Asian, or African American. So we see that for tobacco "addictions" there may actually be racial differences that align with genetic differences.

Let us look at the mutation of another gene the FAAH 385. This gene helps produce an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH). This enzyme is responsible for neutralizing cannabinoids that naturally occur in the body. These naturally occurring body chemicals are the same as the psychoactive component of marijuana. So the body can produce it's own marijuana and destroy it. All without the intervention of drug dealers and the police. Roger Pertwee, professor of neuropharmacology at Aberdeen University says that if you have a mutated copy of the gene you may need more cannibinoids than the body produces to feel normal. He says that this may be one of the reasons that cannabis use is so popular among ten to twenty percent of the population. He also says that genetics accounts for about one half of the nature of addiction.

Let us see if we can account for the other half. A study by the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich reported here and here shows that one of the functions of the cannibinoid system in the body is to help deal with painful memorizes. Now from an evolutionary stand point remembering painful memories can be very helpful if that memory keeps you out of further danger. It is also true though that remembering them for too long can paralyze the ability to act even when necessary. So it is good to remember the pain but generally it is also good, if the pain is not repeated, to gradually forget the memories so a person an "get over it" and get on with life. For some people without the cannibinoid receptor (in the study mice were used) or with out enough cannibinoid production or possibly a system that destroys the cannibinoids prematurely pain memories can be a problem.

In dealing with the human condition we now have a name for those who have problems dealing with long term pain memories. We call them PTSD sufferers. We see them as victims of war, domestic violence, child abuse, and on the job trauma such as firemen and police officers. We know that not all of them have trouble even with very painful memories and now we know why. There is not only a trauma component but also a genetic component.

So in the end it comes down to this. We are making war on people based on their genetics and their suffering. I can think of nothing so unAmerican and unChristian. And yet, sadly, it is not the first such episode in America. I think it is incumbent on us all to make sure it is the last.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Genetic discrimination occurs when people are treated differently by their employer or insurance company because they have a gene mutation that causes or Congress voted to ban genetic discrimination. But how much equality do we really wantGenetic nondiscrimination legislation will reduce the likelihood of genetic information being misused in health insurance or employment decision-making.
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