The Common Thread/ Science, Politics, Ethics, and the Human
zaltun at aecom.yu.edu
Tue Apr 22 10:01:33 EST 2003
>>Below is the critique of J. Sulston's book "The Common Thread" by
>>Ed Regis that appeared in the New York Times Book Review a couple
>>of weeks ago. Following that is Bob Herman's response to this
>>critique that came out this week. I thought it would interest the
>>March 16, 2003, Sunday
>>BOOK REVIEW DESK
>> Other People's Molecules
>>By Ed Regis
>>THE COMMON THREAD
>>A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics,
>>and the Human Genome.
>>By John Sulston and Georgina Ferry.
>>Illustrated. 310 pp. Washington:
>>The Joseph Henry Press. $24.95.
>>IT has been 50 years since James Watson and Francis Crick
>>discovered the double helix, the structure of DNA. And if all goes
>>well, during this year the sequencing of the human genome -- the
>>three-billion-unit molecular code for constructing a human being --
>>will be completed. ''The Common Thread,'' by John Sulston, the
>>British scientist who directed a portion of the sequencing work,
>>and Georgina Ferry, a science writer, is both an autobiography of
>>Sulston and an account of his pitched battle with his longtime
>>nemesis, Craig Venter. Venter was until recently the head of Celera
>>Genomics, a private American company bent on beating everybody else
>>to the genome.
>>Sulston regards Celera as the ''Microsoft of biology'' and Venter
>>as the molecular-biological equivalent of Bill Gates. This is not
>>meant as a compliment; Sulston at one point describes Venter as
>>''the potential destroyer of all that we had worked for.'' So
>>powerful a presence was Venter in molecular biology, as well as in
>>Sulston's professional life, that Venter emerges as the driving
>>force of the narrative.
>>Sulston started off rather unglamorously as a worm biologist,
>>interested in the lowly nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny
>>creature barely one-sixteenth of an inch from tip to tail. He did
>>hands-on worm research, attended ''worm meetings'' and published
>>his results in The Worm Breeders' Gazette, an informal newsletter
>>of worm scientists. It must be read with attention by people beyond
>>that circle, too; last year Sulston and two colleagues in worm
>>science received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for
>>He got drawn into the genome project in 1987, when after four years
>>of work on C. elegans he was invited to a conference in the United
>>States to give a cost estimate of sequencing the entire human
>>genome -- establishing the order of its molecular components. The
>>Human Genome Project, eventually set up by the National Institutes
>>of Health in Bethesda, Md., and headed by none other than Jim
>>Watson himself, officially began in 1990, with a target completion
>>date of 2005.
>>The work proceeded slowly, however, and by the end of 1994 less
>>than 1 percent of the full genome had been sequenced and placed
>>into public databases, while the scientists involved held a series
>>of planning, strategy, timetable and organizational sessions. In
>>1996, finally, at one such meeting in Bermuda, Sulston helped
>>define an ''etiquette of sharing,'' an ideal that applied both to
>>the division of sequencing labor among an international consortium
>>of laboratories and to the release of data derived from them.
>>Sulston's notion was to publish the information immediately and
>>openly as it arrived, with no restrictions imposed upon use. ''Open
>>access and early release mean that anyone in the worldwide
>>biological community can use those data and turn them into
>>biological understanding and ultimately into new inventions that
>>can be patented,'' he says. ''But the sequence itself in its raw
>>form when publicly released becomes unpatentable.''
>>In 1998, two years after the Bermuda meeting, Venter, a scientist
>>formerly with the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and
>>Stroke, announced that he had obtained private backing to form a
>>company that would sequence the human genome by 2001. His claim had
>>to be taken seriously because in 1995 one of his earlier
>>enterprises, the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), had
>>completed the world's first sequencing of a free-living organism,
>>the disease-causing bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. Having now
>>staked out the human genome as his own private turf, Venter, never
>>a paragon of tact, suggested that the government-financed
>>researchers confine themselves to sequencing the genome of the
>>laboratory mouse. ''It was like asking them to walk into the sea
>>and drown,'' Watson said later.
>>Venter's goal at Celera was to produce a quick and dirty version of
>>the genome in an attempt to locate genes that drug companies and
>>other researchers could use to provide cures for human diseases.
>>Celera, whose corporate motto was ''Speed matters. Discovery can't
>>wait,'' planned to patent several hundred genes and license them to
>>commercial outfits for a fee, while publishing the nonpatented
>>sequences on the company's Web site.
>>As Celera issued a series of ever-more-astonishing press releases
>>reporting its having reached and passed a succession of important
>>scientific milestones (one of which was sequencing the fruit fly
>>genome in five months, whereas it had taken Sulston's group more
>>than nine years to sequence C. elegans), Sulston saw his dream of
>>an open and unrestricted human genome turn into a nightmare of
>>genomic privatization by a single-minded bio-capitalist.
>>To Sulston, the notion of ''patenting'' genes was morally
>>offensive: the genome was the common heritage of humankind and not
>>the preserve of any individual, group or corporation. Also,
>>patenting genes made no conceptual sense, he thought; genetic
>>sequences were not Venter's or anyone else's ''invention'' and
>>should be no more patentable than a rainbow. And as a practical
>>matter, tying up various bits of genetic information in endless
>>patent disputes would retard the further progress of science and
>>medicine. To Sulston and his colleagues in the publicly supported
>>project, this was war.
>>In the end, a truce was declared under pressure from Congress,
>>which allocated the project's funding, and President Clinton, who
>>according to Sulston viewed the affray as a personal embarrassment
>>and an obstacle to Al Gore's succeeding him as president. ''The
>>White House wanted something nice to happen about the human
>>genome,'' Sulston says, and what better spectacle than a
>>simultaneous declaration in 2000 by the British and the Americans
>>that a ''draft'' version of the genome had been completed? And so,
>>Bill Clinton and Tony Blair proclaimed victory over the genome.
>>''The date of the announcement, 26 June, was picked because it was
>>a day that happened to be free in both Bill Clinton's and Tony
>>Blair's diaries,'' Sulston writes. ''Nobody was really ready to
>>announce; but it became politically inescapable to do so. We just
>>put together what we did have and wrapped it up in a nice way, and
>>said it was done. . . . Yes, we were just a bunch of phonies!''
>>Indeed, this is a story in which nobody comes off looking good.
>>Some of the world's top molecular biologists are shown plotting to
>>deny Venter and Celera an early conquest of the genome. Sulston
>>himself exhibits a meanspirited streak when he violates his own
>>principle of free release of information by declining to give
>>Venter some data he had requested. The Wellcome Trust, which
>>financed the Sanger Center, of which Sulston was the director,
>>''had not invested its money to see the benefits going to a United
>>States entrepreneur,'' he says. So much for ''sharing.''
>>SULSTON chides Celera for issuing progress reports that he says in
>>some cases wildly overstated the company's accomplishments. Celera
>>used a ''shotgun'' approach to sequencing, a method that breaks up
>>the genome into millions of pieces and then reads the molecular
>>ordering of each piece individually. (Francis Collins, Watson's
>>successor as director of the public project, was once quoted as
>>saying that shotgun sequencing would produce ''the Cliffs Notes or
>>the Mad magazine version'' of the genome.) Venter may have played
>>down the problems of putting the pieces back together again, but
>>the method had worked perfectly well with Haemophilus influenzae
>>and the fruit fly.
>>And while Celera's press releases may have been skewed, Sulston's
>>account of the patenting issue and the ethics of using gene
>>sequences for private profit is equally lopsided. Genes are
>>fragments of biological software and, like computer software, some
>>genetic sequences are full of bugs. The primary point of patenting
>>genes is to make it financially worthwhile for drug companies to
>>spend the money and the years of research, development and clinical
>>trials required to discover new drug molecules that will neutralize
>>the effects of those faulty genes. ''If you have a disease, you'd
>>better hope someone patents the gene for it,'' Venter has said.
>>Celera and Venter had their failings, but they were not the
>>money-grubbing, bottom-dwelling slugs Sulston presents. They were
>>the big bears in the forest that other genome scientists
>>alternately tried to tiptoe around, keep up with and not lose face
>>to. And against its own stated intentions, this book is a
>>backhanded tribute to their influence.
>>Ed Regis is the author of five books about science. His new book,
>>''The Info Mesa,'' will be published in May.
>>Published: 03 - 16 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 ,
>>Column 1 , Page 27
>>Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information
>>April 20, 2003
>>'The Common Thread'
>>To the Editor:
>>I very much disagree with Ed Regis's comment, in his review of John
>>Sulston and Georgina Ferry's book ''The Common Thread'' (March 16),
>>that nobody in the story about the Human Genome Project comes off
>>looking good. I believe the Human Genome Project, to which Sulston
>>belonged, comes off looking very good indeed. Its scientists made
>>their sequence data freely available in the public domain as soon
>>as they obtained it. Regis quotes, apparently approvingly, the
>>privately backed Craig Venter as saying, ''If you have a disease,
>>you'd better hope someone patents the gene for it.'' On the
>>contrary, if I had a genetic disease, I would hope that nobody
>>could patent the gene, because I would want as many independent
>>workers as possible working on a cure, which could then be
>>patented. Regis is wrong when he says that Sulston's account of the
>>patenting issue and ethics of using gene sequences for private
>>profit is lopsided. The nucleotide sequence of a gene is there to
>>be discovered, not invented. If the Human Genome Project had not
>>pushed on when Venter claimed he could do the sequence, we would
>>not have free and open data. In addition, the sequence would be a
>>mess; it is clear that Venter's shotgun-sequencing approach was
>>incapable of getting the complete human genome sequence.
>>Robert K. Herman
>Zeynep F. Altun M.D., Ph.D.
>Albert Einstein College of Medicine,
>Dept of Neuroscience and Psychiatry
>1410 Pelham Pkwy S., R#601
>Bronx, NY 10461
>zaltun at aecom.yu.edu
Zeynep F. Altun M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Dept. of Neuroscience
1410 Pelham Pkwy South, R#601
Bronx, NY 10461-1101
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