BAZELL: Well, let me ask Barry a question about the cloning, because you [Dr. Griffin] have obviously spent a lot of time talking about Dolly. These people did something that had astounding implications for society, at least theoretically, and yet they did it for a very small reason. It wasn't this monumental [effort] to find out whether they could clone an adult mammalian cell; they wanted to find a more efficient way of mass-producing proteins. Is that kind of market-driven force going to become more common with biotechnology? Is that a risk of biotechnology?
BLOOM: I don't see that as a terrific risk, because I think that is how science is done. Biotechnology derived from a set of experiments done by Joshua Lederberg, who had won the Nobel Prize for genetics, and he was not inventing biotechnology. He had no interest at that time in inventing genetic engineering. As I like to say, he was interested in sex in bacteria: Do they have it or not? The profundity that came out of that is that required not evolution by one mutation at a time but by recombination of big pieces of DNA from one bug to another. And once that experiment was done, it was not, as I understand it, his vision that this would give rise to great new industries upon which we could levy taxes. But in fact it was the pursuit of science. Monoclonal antibodies came out of a very different kind of fundamental inquiry. Cancer cells didn't do things specific for tissues from which they derived; they de-differentiated. Antibody cells were not immortal. What would happen if you stuck the two together? Could you get a cancer cell to carry out a differentiated function like making antibodies continuously? That was the question that César Milstein asked, and what came out of that was monoclonal antibodies.
BAZELL: But are people asking those questions nowadays not because of an intellectual curiosity, but because they are thinking about what the investment bankers will fund them to do?
POLLACK: I think it is an unnecessary diversion to worry about the market. The question is not whether people are motivated to become wealthy; it's terrific to become wealthy. The question is whether what motivates them to become wealthy converts into something actually useful. Scientists are protected from the obligation to become wealthy, if they don't choose to, by peer-reviewed, federally mandated large sums of money for basic research, which keeps us a leader in world basic science. I think that will go on, independent of the question of the technology that comes from it. But, as this is a biotechnology panel, Josh Lederberg's motivations are not relevant to the questions you've asked. The questions are, Once basic science produces an understanding of nature which generates the possibility of marketable material, will the market then produce something of benefit to the population of the people who can buy it, the people who can't buy it, the people who don't know about it, and the rest of the species as a species?
On this planet most people still die of infectious diseases, not of inherited differences, and most people still could extend their life by 19th century public health changes, not by what I would call boutique medical improvements driven by DNA data. Nevertheless, this 7-8,000 Standard & Poor stock market is not interested, by and large, in matters that people can't pay for, and most of the people who die young can't buy the kind of materials that would keep them alive if the technology were producing them. So I think there's a poor match of what the species needs and what the market wants. That is an issue not for basic science but for biotechnology. Large companies tithe some fraction of their profit to Third World matters; the Wellcome Trust is a huge gift to basic science from profit; so is the Hughes foundation, when you go back to its origins; but the market itself is not a charity. The market itself is out to make a profit. Your question, I think, is, Can one benefit from profit, in a medical sense or in a social sense? I'd say it's a mixed answer. We don't know, but we're not assured of it. And we have some obligation in the technology to do more than wait for the market, but in fact I would say, in intellectual terms, regulate the market to be sure we at least don't make matters worse for the species in the business of making money.
Let me give an example of making matters worse. If you genetically engineer a plant so that it is resistant to an insecticide, so that you can put more of your insecticide in the soil and still get your crop out, it seems to me that's a short-sighted way to have a profit-making product. There are large biotechnology companies which make genetically engineered food plants whose genetic engineering is not to improve the yield directly, but rather to allow larger doses of insecticide and pesticide and herbicides. That seems to me a bad technology on the face of it.
BAZELL: Let me rephrase the question. Is the structure of funding that is now provided by biotechnology changing the kind of questions that are being asked? Is there enough money and enough motivation for the Joshua Lederbergs and the César Milsteins to ask the kind of fundamental science questions that led to all that change, or are we moving to an environment where we only ask questions that somebody who isn't a scientist can see as having at least the potential for a profit?
GRIFFIN: I don't think we are moving to that situation. In the U.K. we are often criticized for doing excellent basic science but not converting that into practice, and there's clearly got to be a balance. If you move too far towards practical applications, then the ideas will tend to dry up from the basic science. It's a matter of trying to get the balance correct. As far as the issues with the Third World go, I'm not sure that we're justified in selecting biotechnology as a particular focus here. We all consume more than our fair share of resources in Western Europe and in the U.S., including something so basic as food and fuel. I don't see why you should particularly select the biotechnology industry out for criticism or for focus in this regard.
Photo Credits: Biotechnology Forum: Jonathan Smith