Day 2: Tough Questions, No Easy Answers

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Juan Enriquez, director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School

Monterey, Calif. — It was the day for the kind of tough questions at TIME’s Future of Life conference that raise temperatures and unleash tempers: Should we begin planning for an onslaught of designer babies? Has the genomics revolution hoodwinked investors? Are genetically modified crops a menace or boon to the world’s food supply? With all the hoopla over gene-splicing, have biologists lost sight of more mundane issues like the devastating loss of plant and animal species?

As TIME president Eileen Naughton aptly predicted, these emotional topics produced fireworks. At one point, the Nobel laureate James Watson, whose discovery 50 years ago with Francis Crick of DNA’s double helix was the inspiration for the three-day talkfest, showed that even at age 74, he could be as feisty as ever. When ethicist Daniel Callahan insisted that bioscientists didn’t absolutely need embryonic stem cells in their quest to cure certain intractable ailments, Watson roared from his seat: “That’s crap.” Stunned into momentary silence, Callahan eventually replied that maybe scientists could use them under certain circumstances, “but I’d hold my nose.”

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Dramatic as it was, the exchange didn’t cloud the generally upbeat view of the future voiced by most of the speakers. None of the sessions showed this positive mood more clearly than the one on the loss of species, which ecologist Thomas Lovejoy estimated was occurring at an alarming rate of 100,000 a year, mainly because of the destruction of habitat. Still, when they were asked about the future, Lovejoy and his fellow panelists, Harvard’s E.O. Wilson and Ryan Phelan of the All Species Foundation described themselves as guardedly optimistic. Said Wilson, “The world is beginning to wake up to the loss.” He predicted that the cataloging of the planet’s still uncounted millions of species would become a major scientific effort, especially in the developing world, but added that it would require “education, education, education.”

The British writer Matt Ridley, author of “Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters,” offered an even more cheerful perspective. Arguing that the early fears about tinkering with genes had proved to be groundless, he went on to dismiss the current concerns of many of his fellow Europeans about genetically modified (GM) foods. Mother Nature, he said wryly, had been engaged in such crossbreeding experiments for millions of years. “She’s got a huge research budget,” he added, “and the chances of us beating her at that game seem to me rather remote.” As for human cloning, he saw no moral arguments against it if it turned out to be a safe. He even allowed that something good might be said for the atomic bomb: “Maybe MAD (mutually assured destruction) did indeed prevent great wars between East and West.” So, asked his interlocutor TIME senior sciences editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt, “your line is that the glass is half full?” “That’s right,” Ridley replied.

Other participants in this all-star gathering of scientists, artists and business leaders weighed in with likely benefits from the advances in genomics. University of Montreal law professor Bartha Knoppers, for example, pointed out that they could lead to greater mutual understanding among peoples by illuminating how narrow our genetic differences really are. “We could finally realize our ideal of the family of man,” she said. Similarly, with recent identification of more genes associated with Alzheimer’s, Harvard’s Rudolph Tanzi predicted substantial progress in the search for a treatment for this devastating disease. “The news is good,” he said. “We’re well on our way to new leads in the development of drugs for Alzheimer’s.” MIT’s Nancy Hopkins, for her part, saw in recent research on hormonal pathways in such lowly creatures as worms and zebra fish the possibility of new treatments for aging. If these work, she said, you won’t necessarily live more years but you’ll stay young longer.

But other speakers sounded cautionary notes about the direction of the genetics revolution. Some worried about the loss of privacy if gene-typing becomes commonplace. Others expressed fears that if so-called designer babies ever became possible, it might lead to the advent of a genetic caste system – with the wealthy able to afford super babies and the poor excluded from such genetic perks.

A different sort of complaint came from neuropsychologist Nancy Wexler, whose scientific sleuthing among clusters of families around Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo afflicted with Huntington’s disease paved the way for the identification of the gene for the fatal ailment and a test for its detection. She noted that treatment for the disease is no better now that it was when her mother died of it in 1978. That’s at least partly because, she said, drug companies aren’t interested in developing “orphan drugs” for diseases with a relatively low incidence of occurrence. Thus, without the prospect of a cure, few people get tested for the gene. And if they do, they face the added burden of possibly being denied health insurance should the test turn out to be positive. Her message: new social policies are badly needed to protect such people.

A similar plea was voiced by Paul Gelsinger, whose 18-year-old son Jessie died during a gene-therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania in September 1999. He said doctors painted “a beautiful picture” of the benefits of the treatment without a full explanation of the risks. Why? Because too often the precise protocols used in clinical trials are hidden at the insistence of drug companies eager to protect their patent rights, explained Dean Hamer, chief of the National Cancer Institute’s gene structure and regulation section. Calling for more transparency in such experimental procedures, he said there was a simple explanation for why there aren’t tougher federal regulations on informed consent: “Just follow the money,” said Hamer, and you’ll get the answer. He cited treatment of AIDs as a prime example of economics-driven medicine. “There are great drugs for HIV,” he said, “but only 3% of the people affected get them.”

Whatever the economic reasons behind such disparities, those involved in the business of genomics emphasized that biotechnology has yet to produce the promised pot of gold. Venture capitalist G. Steven Burrill estimated that investors had poured some $220 billion in biotechnology startups in the past two decades and still haven’t made any money. But some of the speakers felt that could soon change—and urged the U.S. not to let this opportunity slip by such shortsighted policies as curbing stem-cell research, a decision that has led at least one prominent scientist to move his lab out of the country. “When you see whole groups of scientists move to take advantage of new opportunities,” said Juan Enriquez, director of the Harvard Business School’s life science project, “you can make a country rich or poor very quickly.” As for genomics, he said, “This is the sort of technology that leads to the rise and fall of nations.”