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WNT-4

By Sophia Siedlberg

Revised 4th., February, 2005

 

Issue 14
May 2001

 
There is a maxim that often holds true, it goes like this: The more complex a system, the less predictably it will behave. For example many people who buy a new computer, tend to think that there is a set way to deal with problems that may arise. So what sometimes happens is that they will buy a patch or a utility and install it, only to find that the computer does not do as it is supposed to after the installation. Often to the despair of the owner.

Quite often there is a simpler solution, if it works, why potentially make it worse. Another example would be to dismantle a washing machine in order to put the clothes into it. Just because someone says you cannot use the door. And then expect the washing machine to work once you have re-assembled it with the clothes in situ. Well recently a gene on chromosome one, the, aptly named "WNT-4". has become a potential symbol of this kind of systemic "fix it at your peril" paradox. Consider the following account from theScientific American(1):

Gene Duplicate Causes Sexual Ambiguity

In one out of every 3,000 births, the physician cannot tell the new parents what some have waited to hear But the results of a study described in the Journal of Human Genetics may offer new hope to parents whose infants are born sexually ambiguous. According to the report, researchers have determined that a second copy of a sex determination gene known as WNT-4 can change an embryo from male to female, which often results in ambiguous genitalia. The finding could help doctors more accurately and quickly identify an externally ambiguous baby's gender.(sic)

Geneticist Eric Vilain of the University of California at Los Angeles and his colleagues identified WNT-4 as one of several genes that determine sex. Whereas most genetic defects stem from the absence or mutation of a gene, genital defects arise when WNT-4 appears twice on the chromosome. WNT-4, it seems, "influences the sex determination pathway at each step of the way," Vilain notes. "We discovered that when the amount of the gene fluctuates even slightly at any stage in the genetic blueprint, it changes the embryo from male to female."

The WNT-4 study results will enable researchers to use genetic testing to help identify the causes of genital ambiguity. Moreover, scientists might one day even be able to treat a defective embryo in utero. "Our findings suggest that clinicians could identify the WNT-4 duplication prenatally," Vilain remarks. "If this proves true, in the future we may be able to correct the defect in the womb and restore the embryo to its original male status. This may repair the genital malformations before the child is born."

 
Important Update
4th., February, 2005

Notice how the emphasis is made about parents"may offer new hope to parents whose infants are born sexually ambiguous."As if stating that the parents are the ones who are afflicted, the child is the passive bystander, or property that causes embarrassment. What I am saying is really simple, such theorising about future medical approaches is both deeply questionable from an ethical standpoint as well as indicative of that persistent near genocidal hatred of intersex people.

Biologically there are a number of questions I have. It has become obvious from the findings of Professor Vilain that we are looking at polygenic expression here. The question is why does it seem so important to say that even in recognising polygenic components to sex determination, that run through the autosomes. "If the fetus has a "Y" chromosome in the 23rd pair it must be made into a boy, or it is established as being male." This is a contradiction. There is a pathway of autosomal entities involved, the complexity of which is not understood, and to satisfy the need to say "Y=BOY" or "X=GIRL" the solution is to risk altering numerous coding exons to "Fit" the fact that chromosome Y or X is present. No regard to the potential health risks that may be involved. The possibility of compromising the individuals health is far greater by taking the "Autosomes will obey the sex determinants" approach, rather than just accepting the fact that "Y does not always =Boy" and "X does not always =Girl".

The main reason for objections to a notion of "designer babies" has more to do with the not so clear model of polygenic expression. You can re-engineer a gene in some area but what that will mean in terms of other genes interacting with it will for the most part remain unclear. This study has demonstrated this quite starkly. Current attempts at using somatic gene therapy have shown this to be the case to some extent, with numerous examples of the end result not being what was expected. There is little or no concept of risk management in this suggestion that a pre natal treatment for intersexuality can be implemented. And like earlier methods of "treating" intersexuality, there is a danger that such intervention will do more harm than good.

Dr Money for example claimed that "gender identity" was psychological, and a product of upbringing, this was proven to be wrong. The reason is most likely because the people in his care were not even consulted. The risk of course is that of having been forced to live as someone else. In the case of surgical intervention, to also face the risks of later complications. The problem with the cause and effect model of treating intersex people does not account for the fact that there are so many genes containing coding exons that can alter the "sex" of the fetus. This in itself should be a reason to stop and think before trying to dictate who is what and who will be what.

So in brief the very suggestion shows an obvious lack of understanding about the dynamics of polygenic expression. There is discussion here not about a "single gene" disorder, but "Polygenic gene" correction. It is difficult simply trying to treat a single gene with a single outcome, let alone forcing a gene to interact in context with other genes. In this case, more frighteningly, to remove a second copy of the gene in question altogether. So this brings me back to my little pun about the name of this gene. WNT-4. The irony here is that the name of this gene reminds me of a certain computer operating system that behaves just like a polygenic contextualisation, as a complex system. See the not so useful patch or utility as the "chromosomal material" and see the host operating system as being the polygenic array. Q.E.D.

On an ethical level, if intersex people are regarded so poorly by society that society would sanction such uncertain uses of genetic manipulation, when somatic gene therapy on single gene conditions has yet to become viable, I really wonder about society itself and its attitude towards those it considers unable to fit the two sex system, when discussing a very theoretical assumption that you could patch up the genome at such a complex point.

The language is very puzzling to me as well. I discussed this in some depth at the Gendys 2000 conference,(2)about how "Male" and "Female" fetus cannot be regarded as a valid term, because of polygenic expressions of the type WNT-4 appears to be. What is really meant by saying that we have a "Feminised male fetus" It should be quite evident that to say XX/XY is the overriding marker of gender and sex, when the evidence shows clearly to the contrary, results in a contradiction of terms, and what makes this research extremely dubious is the fact that the people conducting the research are somehow prepared to suggest taking the hardest route possible, a route that is the most convoluted, in order to establish the most simplistic and flawed paradigms. As I said earlier, would you dismantle a washing machine in order to put the clothes into it? Just because someone says you cannot use the door. And then expect the washing machine to work once you have re-assembled it with the clothes in situ? No! So where is the logic behind this research if it is not simply another example of the need to believe in the increasingly untenable. The reality here is simple XX does not equal a girl and XY does not equal a boy. The genes involved in the sex determinants evidently are part of a broader picture. And to try to make the picture fit in such a limited way is no different from the surgical mutilation of intersex children, based on the flawed assumptions laid down by society and not genuine science.

And then I have to ask myself what this means: "The finding could help doctors more accurately and quickly identify an externally ambiguous baby's gender." If by "gender" they mean "how they themselves will identify" then they are on Planet W. I mean they can't even get to grips with the most basic aspects of human behaviour with respect to genetic causality, yet alone self identity. And if they don't mean "self identity" when saying "gender" then they really need to qualify the remark, because it is very vague and meaningless in that context.

References:

  1. Scientific American: News In Brief. Wednesday, May 02, 2001.
    http://www.sciam .com/news/0502 01/2.html
  2. Nature gives Choice! (But not just me)by Sophia Siedlberg,
    Gendys 2K Conference TEXT

 

Other articles by Sophia Siedlberg:

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Citation
Siedlberg, S., (2001) WNT-4
http://www.gender.org.uk/chstnuts/wnt.htm

 
Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Sophia Siedlberg. 07.05.01 Last amended 05.02.05