Penn bioethicist foresees a wild frontier Glenn McGee, author and media dynamo, fears where advances in cloning, fertility, and other genetic techniques could lead. From 'Oprah' to Congress, Penn bioethicist gets around

Posted: October 21, 2003

Bioethecist Glenn McGee envisions a time when we'll do genetic testing at home with a device the size of an iPod.

The machine will offer daily downloads, he says, about our changing cells and the tendencies we not only inherit but develop. This precise map of our genes will tell us what things to avoid and what to eat, and let us have drugs tailor-made for us.

And all of it sooner than you think.

"I'm talking five years," says McGee, author of Beyond Genetics: Putting the Power of DNA to Work in Your Life (William Morrow).

A brash claim, perhaps. But the wunderkind University of Pennsylvania professor, whose just-published book is both a users' manual and critique of the brave new genomic world, is nothing if not bold.

Just 26 years old when he landed a job at Penn's prestigious Center for Bioethics, McGee has been credited in the last decade with raising the profile of this cutting-edge academic field.

A philosopher by training, McGee created the first bioethics Web site, and founded and edits an influential quarterly, the American Journal of Bioethics. He's appeared on Oprah, advised oil sheiks on stem-cell research, and teamed with the scientist who cloned Dolly the sheep to write a proposal for regulating human cloning. He was recently asked to become a bioethics adviser to Congress.

"Glenn has the kind of powerful analytic ability to pull disparate ideas and themes together," says Art Caplan, who founded the Penn bioethics center and originated the kind of less theoretical, take-it-to-the-people bioethics McGee practices.

"He's truly a pioneer in moving bioethics into the electronic world. When he was talking about it, the Internet was a wild and uncivilized landscape."

McGee's friend David Magnus, codirector of the bioethics center at Stanford University, says, "Glenn is better at making things happen than any other academic I have ever met. He never looks at things the way the rest of us do, and then he has the energy to make his vision work out."

How do you amass a 32-page resume by age 36? Sleeping just three to four hours a night helps.

The boyish-looking McGee keeps up a punishing schedule, teaching and lecturing and returning as many as two dozen calls and e-mails from reporters each day. This month he has appeared on ABC's World News Tonight, weighing in on a radical new reproductive technology tested in China, and mixed it up on Fox's The O'Reilly Factor over a racism scandal at a suburban Philadelphia hospital.

Pizza in the office

Some days the only way he gets to see his young sons, Aidan, 1, and Austin James, 3, is if his wife, Monica, a nurse-practitioner, brings them to his office to eat a pizza dinner - while McGee waits to make a live appearance on a nighttime television show from the center's own TV studio. (His 9-year-old son, Ethan, lives in Little Rock with McGee's ex-wife.)

"I see talking to the media as an extension of teaching," said McGee, who turned his dissertation into his first book, The Perfect Baby: Parenthood in the New World of Cloning and Genetics. "This is a new era for the public to make decisions about what counts as a family and a person and as right and wrong, [and] I have been given the incredibly rare opportunity to touch 100,000 or one million people at a time."

But McGee's career nearly went off the rails a few years ago, when the expert on genes learned of his own origins. The woman who had put him up for adoption as an infant tracked him down and revealed that his conception had resulted from a date rape.

Although McGee had always known he was adopted, he'd had little hunger to find his birth parents.

"I had the best experience with my family," said McGee. His father, Dan McGee, is also a bioethicist, and a professor at Baylor University; his mother taught high-school botany. McGee's younger sister, also adopted, is a resident in transplant surgery and writes about bioethical issues.

The revelation from his birth mother shook him. "She was nothing like I'd imagined. She'd had eight or nine children and her life was clearly a wreck," he says. "I was angry at myself for wanting her and my father to have given more to the world, to be more like my real parents."

Doubts passed

For a time he stopped writing about reproduction, worried that his own history might color his work. But those doubts passed. He still ponders his connection to the significant strangers who are his birth parents, but eventually McGee returned to what has been a core research subject for him: the ethics of gene transfer.

He is critical of the "gene mania" that drives the infertile toward ever-more complex reproductive technologies. In one scholarly article, McGee and his father questioned the value of producing a genetic relative, and advocated a low priority for research into techniques to transfer genetic material from one egg or embryo to another.

McGee's often-controversial opinions extend to his colleagues, as well. He sparked a furious debate over the ethics of his own field when he resigned from the ethics board of a Massachusetts firm that cloned an endangered ox species called a gaur.

McGee, who said he quit over the company's secrecy, was widely quoted as calling ethics boards "rubber stamps" meant to provide an aura of respectability to tech companies.

Dartmouth College bioethicist Ronald M. Green, who joined the firm's ethics board as McGee was exiting, said McGee is "a stirrer and a shaker and doing some important things. But young turks sometimes go overboard."

McGee has called Green's defense of the company "PR" and said that ethicists are sometimes willing to overlook their marginal role at a company to gain an inside look at patented research.

The increasingly proprietary grip that privately held firms have on the genetic universe is part of the cautionary tale that runs through Beyond Genetics, whose advance bought McGee his dream house (an 18th-century renovated farmhouse on five acres in Bala Cynwyd).

McGee sees a future in which manipulating genetic material will allow us to create everything from custom wonder drugs to engineered foods to designer babies.

What he hopes the book will provoke are the questions we need to start asking fast: Are these things desirable? Who will have oversight? Who will be trained to help us interpret the new information? Who will own the knowledge gained from our genes?

"I wrote this book because I'm trying to crush the people who do the old-style genetics," McGee says, "the people who are out there trying to patent genes and keep secrets and erect tollbooths that stop people from learning more about themselves.

"Information is for sharing. Sure, there are property rights and water rights. But when it comes to things floating in my body, I think that information is something nobody should be able to own."

Contact staff writer Eils Lotozo

at 215-854-5610 or elotozo@phillynews.com.

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