Dissecting biotech’s ‘benefits’

Jason Guriel, a second-year York graduate student in English who writes about research at York University, sent the following article to YFile.

Biotechnology represents one of the most important new frontiers of the global economy. As a result, many corporations and governments in Western countries have promised that the development of genetic technologies will guarantee a variety of substantial health benefits.

Left: Roxanne Mykitiuk

“But as various agencies hype the benefits of genetic technologies,” notes Roxanne Mykitiuk, professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, “we have to ask ourselves: will such benefits actually be produced – and if so, who will be able to afford them?”

Mykitiuk is currently involved in a number of research projects aimed at answering these important questions by dissecting just how society defines and characterizes “health benefits”.

Right: A biotech procedure

Her research will also assess the extent to which socially determined health benefits have fallen off society’s radar as a result of the hype surrounding biotechnology.

“For example, providing housing to a poor person is one way to improve a society’s health,” suggests Mykitiuk. “But more and more people are turning to genetic technology as the solution to health problems – and this is a shift in emphasis that we have to assess.”

Working with Osgoode student Michelle Dagnino, through of the Ontario Genomics Institute summer student fellowship program, Mykitiuk stresses that students are more than just simply resources for research. They are, in fact, important collaborators in research.

With York doctoral candidate Dayna Scott and others, Mykitiuk is also embarking on a collaborative one-year project, funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Law Commission of Canada, that will explore the different kinds of knowledge that lawmakers use in making decisions about regulating biotechnology. The project will attempt to determine if there is a divergence of views between citizens and experts regarding the assessment of biotechnology risks, as well as whether or not there are mechanisms in place to enable citizens to deliberate and reflect on these risks.

A new book edited by Mykitiuk and Margaret Shildrick, visiting professor from University College Dublin, titled Ethics of the Human Body: Challenging the Conventions, will be released in early 2005.