Friday, July 18, 2008
NEMESIS – THE HUMAN GENOME MAPPING RACE
While attending George Mason University I made a living as a lab tech at Genetics & IVF Institute (the McDonald’s of Genetics). It’s the place to go if you want to get artificially pregnant, check to see if your baby’s gonna be Downs or find out “who’s your daddy?” While I was there we lost a few techs to the Human Genome rivalry. The Celera lab paid more and you got your own Perkin-Elmer Applied Biosystems 3700. Science geek heaven. But I prefer to analyze the DNA of the promiscuous. So I stuck with Paternity testing.
At the center of the Human Genome mapping race are Francis Collins and Craig Venter. Both were working on the Human Genome project at NIH. But since NIH was taking so long to map out the genome, Craig Venter left NIH to form Celera and use his controversial “shotgun” technique in order to speed up the process and profit off of the Human Genome. The term “shotgun” may bring to mind southern accents and neon orange hunting vests but it’s just another example of scientists trying to make themselves sound sexy. Like Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism. I don’t have to tell you what Fragment Length is alluding to.
But seriously, folks, the shotgun technique allows you to skip “junk DNA” in order to get to the DNA that we know the function of. It is more profitable to supply the sequence of a location that we know to cause cancer than one we don’t know the use of. And in February 2001, when Venter announced that the Human Genome was complete, it was NOT complete. The “junk DNA” had not been mapped. But the papers carried the headline “Human Genome Complete.” If a scientist tells you it’s so, it must be true. It was not actually completed until over two years later in April of 2003. Francis Collins and his team at NIH finished the job and the headlines said the same thing and the general public still didn’t notice.
Prior to this James Watson left NIH. Yes, that’s the double helix Watson of Watson and Crick fame. I know we all remember where we were when we read “The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.” It’s a landmark event in every child’s young life. But Watson’s reason for leaving was the opposite of Venter's. Watson objected to the director of NIH, Bernadine Healy, attempting to do the same thing as Venter – sell genes by granting patents and ownership rights on gene sequences.
Bernadine Healy was appointed to the position by George H.W. Bush “after a long search in which Bush insisted that the N.I.H. director be opposed to abortion.” Incidentally, she previously served under Reagan and now advises George W. Bush.
Bernadine Healy has a selective anti-science stance in opposition to stem cell research and evolution. From a recent article by Healy: “The United States is in the midst of a gold rush over human-embryo research.” But she and the Republicans supported the one scientific venture that they could really profit off of, selling genetic sequences to the researchers of cancer and other medical disorders. They would have thus delayed the finding of cures as the scientists would have had to do more fund raising in order to afford the sequences.
Gene patents stop innovation and quite frankly, they kill. It’s like having a monopoly. It’s like owning land because you drew a map of it first. You should own the map not the land. And therein lies the complication. Genes on paper are like maps. But if you use the same techniques, obviously techniques should be patented, you will come up with the same map. But the cost of a map should be negligible. Like the cost of the magazine it’s published in. And discovering heart disease shouldn’t allow you to have a patent on coronaries. If I have a heart attack do I have to pay residuals? You should just get credit for the work and a patent if you developed a technique. So here is the complication that logic brings us.
In March 2000, President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair announced that they were opposed to patenting genome sequences and that they should be swiftly published so that they would be available to all researchers. Celera's stock immediately took a dive as did the biotech reliant NASDAQ. An estimated $50 billion in biotech market capitalization was lost in two days.
This has happened in other areas of biotech. Such as the journey of Taq Polymerase or Thermus Aquaticus. You might remember it from its reign as Molecule of the year in 1989. It is the enzyme used in PCR which is a form of DNA analysis. This enzyme is necessary as it can survive in extremely high temperatures which allows for amplification. This basically means it allows us to get results from smaller amounts of blood or semen or whatever sample you’ve brought in to test. And, no, you can’t identify someone’s ashes. Please stop asking. The temperature that Taq Polymerase naturally resides in is so high that it was found in the geysers of Yellowstone National Park. The discoverer has profited off of it but it was found on public park land. So can someone own all of something because they found one of something? No. The courts decided that you cannot own all of something because you found one of something, thus making DNA extraction that much cheaper. The 818 is out – besides being the area code to Burbank it is the number of the Taq Patent. Either way Taq Polymerase is my favorite enzyme/porn name.
In conjunction with Healy’s “gold rush” quote and the NYTimes use of the term “bio-prospecting” I consider genetics labs across the country to be the Deadwood of our time. So let’s all set up camp and get us some whores. “If that’s what you fuckin’ do.” - Calamity Jane
P.S. Healy retired from the American Red Cross on December 31, 2001, amidst controversy over the handling of funds for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
P.P.S. As of 2004 “Junk DNA” is no longer junk. "Ironically, what was damned as junk might turn out to be the secret of human complexity." Like you didn’t see that coming.