ROBERT BAZELL: It used to be that scientists practiced their craft in universities or in big drug companies and didn't talk to each other too much. When the technology of recombinant DNA came along in the early '70s, it occurred to a few very bright people that biology suddenly wasn't just a descriptive science any more; it had the potential to make products, and make products very quickly. And so they started these things called biotechnology companies, and one in particular, Genentech, on the day of its initial public offering in 1980, went from an opening bid of $35 to top out at $85 in a matter of a few hours. Nowadays you get that kind of action on Wall Street with chicken companies, but in those days that was an unusual Wall Street event, and it got the attention of a lot of people who knew nothing about biology (let alone biotechnology) to pay attention. Biotechnology started to become synonymous over the years with very high risk and high reward.
I have heard from friends who work on Wall Street that the biotechnology companies that are doing the best right now are not companies that have products (which are an extraordinary minority anyway); they are companies that have stories. They come in and tell investment bankers the story: that they are going to find a cure for arthritis, to completely make arthritis go away; they know how to do it, and they have the top scientists, and it's going to happen. Those stocks are doing better than the companies that have products, because if you have products you can test them and find out whether they work in a finite period. But biotechnology is an interesting thing: It's changed the landscape of how biology functions in universities and in the relationship between pharmaceutical industries. So I think we want to start out by asking, What is biotechnology capable of achieving? Is biotechnology going to do anything different for us, with all its investments and capital coming in, from what would have happened if there weren't this industry?
HARRY GRIFFIN: I certainly think that biotechnology has the potential for this. What we've been doing in the past a lot of the time is descriptive biology. It's using the genetic variations that exist around us. But in the future--already--we can create our own genetic variations. In the field that our institute is in, we're introducing human genes into cattle and sheep to produce therapeutic proteins in their milk. The creation of material by genetic engineering wouldn't happen without biotechnology, without the revolution in understanding molecular biology and the structure of DNA. So I think that the potential is there for something quite different than we have had in the past.
BAZELL: Barry, from where you sit, is biotechnology changing the world?
BARRY BLOOM: Not yet, but I think the word that you will hear an awful lot here is potential. Biotechnology is the application of science to dreams--and not everybody in the past in science has dreamt either very deeply or far, or in a practical way. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the people who made the first atom bomb, said that the deep and profound truths in science were arrived at not because they were important, but because it was possible to find them. [What makes it] possible to find them is the technology and the harnessing of imagination. I think the potential to harness the imagination and reduce it to products is a marriage that has been very inefficient. One group of people look for knowledge; another group of people in companies look for products. It was a very slow process, trying to link the two. This happens on an hourly basis in biotechnology.
BOB POLLACK: I appreciate that Barry Bloom has referred to a great, now dead physicist for a reference on biotechnology, and I'd like to do the same. A colleague of mine, now recently dead, Robert Serber, was No. 2 to Oppenheimer in the theoretical section of Los Alamos in the development of the atom bomb. And Serber after the war was one of the founding organizers of Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. This laboratory is a marker of America's late-stage potential loss of leadership in high-energy physics, as its big cyclotron looks never to be built, but when Serber was building Brookhaven in the '50s, he says in his autobiography, he noticed that the time it took to get out to Brookhaven was constant even as the technology of getting there kept changing for the better. When he began, he had to drive out on back roads. Then the Long Island Expressway opened, and then the Long Island Railroad changed its stations, but getting to Brookhaven always took an hour and a half over a 30-year period.
I want to use that story as an excuse not to answer Bob Bazell's question. That is, I don't think we know--and I don't think it's wise to speculate linearly from what we know--what the technology will look like in 20 or 30 years. I'd rather answer the question to say what it will feel like to be inside of whatever technology is likely to come, rather than speculate on how many new products there will be or what they will look like. My strong sense is that the change in our lives which will come from this technology will be sensed as a loss of what we now think of as our freedom to change ourselves. It will be, unless we're careful about it, a setting in of a kind of DNA-driven determinism, where what you are born with in each of your cells, as your particular unique version of the human genome, becomes more and more a statement of your future as well as your ancestry. By 30 years, there is a chance that we will measure our age by how many years we have left rather than by how many years we have been alive. That will be a major political change in all societies, no matter what their other political structures are. You can imagine people who have five years to live being a constituency with some force, even if some of those are the parents of kids with inborn genetic disease, and some are people who are very old and now have a diagnosis but not a cure. I think this technology drives diagnosis without cure, and we are not as a society well prepared to deal with the consequences.
BAZELL: That's an interesting and very sad extrapolation of the current ability to determine diagnosis without cure, without thinking that that problem in itself can be solved.
POLLACK: I don't know when the cures will follow from the diagnostic technology, nor do I know that they won't. But I'm saying, as both my colleagues have said, we're in a window now where the technology of determination of what's in your DNA is very fast-moving. Many of the dreams that Barry refers to are dreams of the utilization of individual diagnostic differences in inherited DNA. There are many marketable tests for whether you have inherited a propensity for a future problem. My sense is that right now we have opened up, in our field as scientists, an ethical obligation to follow those determinations as quickly as possible with something to do about them. And I don't see a similar market-driven obligation to do something about the tests once the test is available. I don't know that that wouldn't change tomorrow, but as of today that's the way it looks.
BAZELL: Harry, do you share that grim outlook?
GRIFFIN: I don't. I think that's a rather pessimistic view in that I think it's elevating genes to a major part of our future. There are obviously some cases where our genetic makeup has got some pretty obvious consequences: One in 25 of us, or at least those of us who are Caucasians, carry the cystic fibrosis gene, and at present the life expectancy of someone with cystic fibrosis is not much more than the late 20s or early 30s; but that's a condition that's been known for some time, and treatments are being developed. I think when it comes to other genetic propensities, we're into areas of risk, and I think risk is something that society, both collectively and as individuals, finds exceedingly difficult to handle. If you were told, for example, you had a 50 percent chance of breast cancer, but the only solution was radical mastectomy, what sort of choice is that? On the other hand, if you were told you had a 10 percent risk of serious illness, would you do anything about it? People in general tend to ignore risks; at least those of us who smoke ignore risks. I think information presented in this way is going to be very difficult for individuals to handle.
BAZELL: But a lot of people would say that the cloners of Dolly, which raised all this ethical issue about an identical genetic copy of something, would have a strong interest in saying the genes aren't all that important. Suddenly we're back to nurture, because we can just reproduce the genome like a rubber stamp.
GRIFFIN: Well, we have human clones already, and we have studied them extensively. Anybody who is an identical twin is genetically identical, and we know that genetically identical twins grow up to be different. We know roughly how different they are if they are raised in a similar environment. There are certainly different personalities in individuals and to suggest that they are not as human as the rest of us is clearly not true. Also, if they have a genetic predisposition, both of them, if they are identical twins, would have that predisposition. But we've lived with that type of issue for some time.
Photo Credits: Biotechnology Forum: Jonathan Smith