hype, fear and synthia

goteborgs-posten, 10 july 2010

Hype and fear. These have become the dominant responses to almost every new scientific advance: hype about the scientific possibilities, fear about the ethical consequences.

So when Craig Venter, the flamboyant US molecular biologist and entrepreneur, announced recently that he had created Synthia, a form of synthetic life, in his laboratory, it was inevitable that people would respond with hype and fear. Venter, the Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu claimed, had taken on ‘the role of a god’ by ‘creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny’. To which the Vatican’s Bishop Domenico Mogavero responded that ‘Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity’.

Venter himself suggested that his work has changed his ‘view of the definition of life and how life works’. It shouldn’t have. For while Venter’s research is without question immensely important, the one thing he has not done (so far at least) is create artificial life. Venter took DNA synthesised in the laboratory and inserted it into an existing bacterium cell from which the natural DNA had been removed. This is an important step because it is the first time that any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell. But there is more to life than DNA, especially when that DNA itself was not designed in the lab but faithfully copied from the cell’s own original genetic code. As George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, has put it, ‘Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.’

Living cells are enormously intricate mechanisms with multitudes of interacting organelles, exquisitely smart membranes and hugely complex signalling systems. Genuinely synthesising new living matter, let alone designing the DNA that codes for such complexity, is an astonishingly difficult task. No doubt it will happen one day, but that day has not yet arrived, nor is it likely to for a long time.

Hype, however, has unfortunately become the currency of contemporary science. Take, for instance, the $3bn Human Genome Project, the greatest and most successful biotechnology endeavour. Almost exactly ten years ago, on 26 June 2000, President Bill Clinton presided over a ceremony at the White House to mark the news that scientists had produced a draft map of the human genome. On one side of him stood Francis Collins, director of America’s National Human Genome Research Institute. On the other side stood Craig Venter who, as founder of biotech firm Celera Genomics, played as significant a role in the mapping of the genome as he undoubtedly will in the manufacturing of synthetic life.

‘With this profound new knowledge’, President Clinton gushed, ‘humankind is on the verge of gaining immense new power to heal. It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.’ Within a decade, Francis Collins suggested, the genetic diagnosis of diseases would be completed and treatments available for diseases such as breast cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. By 2030, he suggested, ‘you will see a complete transformation in therapeutic medicine.’

The idea was that by inspecting the DNA of thousands of individuals, some with certain diseases, some without, and comparing it against the newly created map of the human genome, it would be a simple matter to detect which variants of which genes were linked to which diseases, and then to devise a therapy in response. Ten years, and hundreds of millions of dollars later, we’re still waiting for this approach to bear fruit.

It is true that scientists have discovered some 850 sites on the genome that appear to be linked to common diseases, such as cancers or diabetes. Genes, however, occupy only a small proportion of our DNA. Vaast areas of our DNA has no known biological function. Unfortunately, most of the sections of the human genome that scientists have managed to link to diseases are not genes but part of what many biologists call the ‘dark matter’ outside. The significance of this, no one truly knows. It is possible that many of the links between genome and disease are not real but statistical illusions.

Even when scientists have managed to identify a true link between gene and disease, it has often proved difficult to engineer a therapy. In May 1989, a small group of researchers, Francis Collins among them, discovered CFTR, the gene responsible for causing cystic fibrosis, a degenerative and usually fatal lung disease. There was great hope that a therapy could now be devised, either by replacing the faulty gene with a good one, or by creating a drug that could counter the effects of the faulty gene. Twenty years on, that therapy has still to arrive, though trials for two drugs are underway.

In other cases, drugs have proved easier to develop. A good example is Herceptin, a drug that now treats breast cancer patients with the defective HERT2 gene. Despite such successes, says geneticist Jack Riordan, one of the original team that found CTFR, the great lesson of the past decade has been that finding such therapies is exceptionally difficult. ‘It’s not like going to the moon’, he observes, ‘it’s like going to Mars.’

A recent survey of life scientists for the journal Nature revealed that only one in five believed that the genome project had benefited clinical medicine, and that most do not believe that it will do so for decades. So has all the time and money spent on mapping the human genome been a waste of time? Not at all. For what has made the medical revolution so difficult has helped revolutionize biology. When the human genome project began, most biologists expected that humans would possess around 100,000 genes, the minimum that seemed necessary to account for the complexity of the human being. In fact it turns out that we have only around 21,000. That’s just a thousand more than the nematode, a barely visible worm, and fewer than the sea urchin, puffer fish and rice plant.

So how does so much human complexity arise out of so few genes? What is important, it turns out, are not simply the genes, most of which humans share with other creatures, but the complex system of regulation and expression that defines how those genes work. Scientists have barely begun to understand how this regulatory system operates.

The mind-boggling complexity of gene regulation and expression in humans has made medical advance difficult. But unravelling that complexity has helped transform biology, and is giving us a far more sophisticated insight into the workings of nature. Without the human genome project, and the millions spent on it, such insights would have been impossible. In time, as we understand the basic science better, so medical breakthroughs, too, will become easier. We will eventually get to Mars. Just not this decade, or the next.

The real problem with the human genome project is not that it has been a waste of money but that scientists and politicians have felt it necessary to justify the resources by making unrealistic claims about immediate practical prospects. Much the same has been true of other biotechnologies.

There have in recent years been major advances in areas from stem cell research to brain imaging, all of which have furthered our understanding of natural processes, and all of which hold the promise of important medical advances. What has pushed such technologies into the headlines, however, has not been the often mundane reality of scientific discovery but the frequently fantastical claims about their implications. Genetic modification will sweep away disease and famine. Brain imaging will transform the war on terror by allowing security forces to read the minds of potential terrorists. And so on.

Such hype has been useful in raising funds and in generating public interest. But it is dangerous. Not only can it create cynicism about scientists and the scientific process when the promised breakthroughs fail to materialise, it can also deepen the sense of fear that many feel about biotechnology.

We live in an age of tremendous confusion and dislocation—moral, political and social—and this has helped shape the public’s attitude to science. On the one hand science appears to provide the kinds of certainties that are often lacking elsewhere. People increasingly look to science to help questions about identity and morality – about who we are, where we have come from and where we should be going. Hence the fashion for DNA testing and for evolutionary explanations for everything from shopping to war.

At the same time, many people fear a science that seems to disturb their moral compass, upsetting traditional ideas of humanity and nature. The worry about scientists ‘playing God’ is not simply a religious concern. It expresses a secular fear too: the belief that nature embodies certain verities, and that these verities define boundaries that we transgress at our peril.

Jonathan Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth and an advisor to Britain’s Prince Charles, worries that ‘the “hard lines” between different organisms and species are beginning to melt away’. There is something unnatural, he suggests, about the way that biotechnology dissolves the old boundaries of nature. In an age in which social and moral boundaries appear so fluid, it has never seemed more important to view natural boundaries as solid and permanent. That is why, from the mapping of the human genome to the cloning of Dolly the sheep to man-made bacteria, biotechnology has unleashed all manner of fears about upsetting humanity’s relationship with nature. The irony is that the hyped-up claims about biotechnology made by its supporters have helped fuel the fears felt by its opponents.

But suppose the hype was reality. Suppose, for instance, that Craig Venter really had created synthetic life. Would that have raised new and disturbing ethical issues? It is hard to see how. Humans have always sought to transgress boundaries and to transform nature. From the cultivation of crops to the domestication of animals, from the development of transplant surgery to the invention of mood altering drugs, progress has always been about mastering nature, bending it to our needs.

Building a genuinely artificial bacterium would be an astonishing scientific feat. But it would not be a ‘Frankenstein’ moment. It would not be same as, say, the creation of a sentient being. From an ethical viewpoint, Venter’s work is not fundamentally from previous attempts to control nature, or shape living organisms according to human needs. If Venter is playing God, it is only because humans have always done so.

The hype may not be justified. But neither are the fears.