Monday, July 02, 2007

Like, Duh

A Challenge to Gene Theory, a Tougher Look at Biotech

By DENISE CARUSO
Published: July 1, 2007
The New York Times

[Last] month, a consortium of scientists published findings that challenge the traditional view of how genes function. The exhaustive four-year effort was organized by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute and carried out by 35 groups from 80 organizations around the world. To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might not be a “tidy collection of independent genes” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. According to the institute, these findings will challenge scientists “to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do.”

Biologists have recorded these network effects for many years in other organisms. But in the world of science, discoveries often do not become part of mainstream thought until they are linked to humans.

With that link now in place, the report is likely to have repercussions far beyond the laboratory. The presumption that genes operate independently has been institutionalized since 1976, when the first biotech company was founded. In fact, it is the economic and regulatory foundation on which the entire biotechnology industry is built.

Innovation begets risk, almost by definition. When something is truly new, only so much can be predicted about how it will play out. [...]

For example, antibiotics were once considered miracle drugs that, for the first time in history, greatly reduced the probability that people would die from common bacterial infections. But doctors did not yet know that the genetic material responsible for conferring antibiotic resistance moves easily between different species of bacteria. Overprescribing antibiotics for virtually every ailment has given rise to “superbugs” that are now virtually unkillable.

The principle that gave rise to the biotech industry promised benefits that were equally compelling. Known as the Central Dogma of molecular biology, it stated that each gene in living organisms, from humans to bacteria, carries the information needed to construct one protein.

Proteins are the cogs and the motors that drive the function of cells and, ultimately, organisms. In the 1960s, scientists discovered that a gene that produces one type of protein in one organism would produce a remarkably similar protein in another. The similarity between the insulin produced by humans and by pigs is what once made pig insulin a life-saving treatment for diabetics. [...]

“The genome is enormously complex, and the only thing we can say about it with certainty is how much more we have left to learn,” wrote Barbara A. Caulfield, executive vice president and general counsel at the biotech pioneer Affymetrix, in a 2002 article on Law.com called “Why We Hate Gene Patents.”

“We’re learning that many diseases are caused not by the action of single genes, but by the interplay among multiple genes,” Ms. Caulfield said. She noted that just before she wrote her article, “scientists announced that they had decoded the genetic structures of one of the most virulent forms of malaria and that it may involve interactions among as many as 500 genes.” [...]

“Both theory and experience confirm the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-splicing technology and its products,” said Dr. Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who represented the pro-biotech position. Dr. Miller was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, and presided over the approval of the first biotech food in
1992. [...]

A 2004 editorial in the journal Nature Genetics beseeched academic and corporate researchers to start releasing their proprietary data to reviewers, so it might receive the kind of scrutiny required of credible science.

ACCORDING to [Jack Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and director of its Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety], many biotech companies already conduct detailed genetic studies of their products that profile the expression of proteins and other elements. But they are not required to report most of this data to regulators, so they do not. Thus vast stores of important research information sit idle...

Denise Caruso is executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute, which studies collaborative problem-solving.


This is news ?
Despite the foreboding tone of the article, bioscientists, doctors, and medical practitioners of every type have known for decades that biological systems have multiple redundancies and that there are few "silver bullets" that produce only one effect on the body.

2 Comments:

Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Absolutely. I have been reading SciFi stories for decades that have exactly this issue as background. And no one who has worked on a large scale software project could possibly be surprised by this. Even with the design intent of producing functionally independent modules, it rarely (if ever) actually happens.

July 02, 2007 1:07 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter Medawar (among many others) said as much, several times, in print, and he's been dead nearly 20 years.

If we were to correct the Times' lede, it would say: "[Last] month, a consortium of scientists published findings that mock the completely uninformed view held nowhere but in the New York Times newsroom of how genes function."

July 02, 2007 3:17 PM  

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