Biotech Miracles Will Transform Our Lives
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BLESSINGS FROM THE BOOK OF LIFE
Decoding the human genome will yield a bounty of biotech miracles that will
transform our lives in the next 40 years.
Vol. 141, No. 5
March 6, 2000
In 1998 biotechnology's jauntiest visionary, J. Craig Venter, stunned fellow
scientists by declaring that a company he was forming would decode human
DNA's sequence of chemical building blocks by the end of 2001--at least two
years before an international team led by the National Institutes of Health
hoped to reach that goal. Now Venter, president of Celera Genomics, says his
brash prediction was off. "We're going to sequence the entire genome in nine
months," he said last fall. "If you'd told me that two years ago, I'd have
said you were nuts."
Such is the pace in biotech: Even its bold optimists suffer nuttiness
deficits when guessing what will happen next. Who would have thought, for
instance, that electric fans would be needed to help decode the genome? As
raw data avalanched out of Celera's DNA-sequencing machines last year, the
supercomputers it uses to crunch the data heated up like John Henry's
hammer--fans had to be wheeled in to cool the big iron.
The National Human Genome Research Institute is also speed-reading DNA and
plans to assemble a 90%-complete "working draft" of the genome this spring.
(DNA, of which genes are made, consists of chemical units strung together
like letters in a sentence. The order of the letters, which is spelled out
by sequencing, determines everything from eye color to disease risks.) By
combining the federal institute's public data with its own, Celera hopes to
parse all but a tiny fraction of our book of life this year--a spectacularly
fitting first to open the biotech century.
Sequencing the genome is often called "biology's moon shot." That's wrong:
Getting to the moon was a joy ride to a dead end--it had no lasting effect
on our everyday lives. Decoding the genome will trigger developments that
will change our daily lives as much as westward expansion changed the U.S.
Biotech pioneers will seek out the genetic bad actors behind our worst
scourges, from arthritis to Alzheimer's, which in turn will lead to hundreds
of new therapies. They'll find genes underlying idiosyncrasies like aptitude
for math or low pain threshold. They'll pinpoint the scant 1% or so of our
DNA that separates us from chimps. They'll trek into deep time to
investigate how ancient networks of genes taught themselves to assemble the
fabulous jack-in-the-box of a newborn's brain and the monstrous one of a
Some of their forays may go awry, of course. Insecticidal genes placed in
food plants may jump to other species, creating superweeds. Biotech may also
yield the bitter pill of thwarted hope--if it turns out that a confusing
multitude of genes, rather than a few clear-cut culprits, engender our major
afflictions, the quest for cures may get mired in complexity. There's sure
to be endless debate about the rising costs of biotech drugs. And genetic
studies are likely to reveal patients' disease risks long before cures
arrive, causing great frustration. "We'll be going through hell" because of
the latter problem, Francis Collins, the genome institute's chief, warned
fellow researchers in a recent speech. "But as Winston Churchill said, 'When
you're going through hell, keep going.' "
Here, then, are some guesses about where we'll all be going during the next
In 2010 your doctor will scan your biopsied cells with a DNA array, a
computer-chip-like device that registers the activity patterns of thousands
of genes in cells. It will quickly establish that your lymphoma is actually
one of six genetically distinguishable types of T-cell cancer, each of which
is known to respond best to somewhat different drugs. Another gene-testing
device called a SNP ("snip") chip will flag medicines that won't work in
your case because your particular liver enzymes tend to break them down too
Health sites on the Web will try to grab you by offering inexpensive
genotyping services that predict your responses to scores of drugs. For a
sizable fee, they'll perform more extensive genotyping to estimate your
future risks of developing heart disease, various cancers, and other major
Reproductive clinics will offer prospective parents the ability to screen
embryos generated through in vitro fertilization for hundreds of inherited
diseases. Such tests will be conducted on cells culled from the embryos
before implantation in a mother's womb, enabling parents to select
babies-to-be that are free of genetic glitches that cause diseases such as
Debate will intensify about whether prospective parents should be allowed to
reject embryos because they carry gene variants only loosely linked to later
disease, such as ones that pose a 30% higher than normal risk of diabetes.
Rising consumer resistance to bioengineered foods will peak and begin
subsiding after 2005, when rice implanted with genes that make vitamin A
precursors begins preventing vitamin deficiencies that annually blind up to
500,000 kids worldwide; fruits tweaked to deliver vaccines begin preventing
infections that kill millions; and bioengineered grains with extra iron
begin reaching the two billion people worldwide threatened with anemia.
Meanwhile, the rage for nutraceuticals--foods and dietary supplements laced
with trace nutrients thought to stave off diseases of aging--will help sell
biotech foods in the developed world. A raft of studies suggest that taking
supplementary vitamin E, an antioxidant, cuts the risks of heart disease and
certain cancers. Dozens of foods will contain more E if recent work by
University of Nevada biochemist Dean DellaPenna and a colleague pans
out--they've boosted the levels of vitamin E in plants' seed oil by 800% by
inserting extra copies of a gene that naturally exists in the plants and
makes the vitamin.
Drug development will be vastly accelerated by techniques akin to testing
new aircraft designs in wind tunnels, predicts Joshua Boger, CEO of Vertex
Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge, Mass., biotech company. Researchers will begin
clinical trials by giving safe, tiny doses of, say, half-a-dozen possible
variations of a new medicine to volunteers. The drugs' effects on thousands
of genes and proteins will be monitored and analyzed by computer to predict
how higher "therapeutic" doses will affect people of various genotypes. That
will enable researchers to select the optimal molecules and immediately
begin large, pivotal clinical trials, skipping initial phases of testing
that now often take years.
The result: Gene-based drugs geared to patients' genotypes will be available
for most major killers. Some big diseases will be on the way out--rheumatoid
arthritis and other autoimmune diseases such as lupus will be essentially
curable by drugs that selectively switch off parts of the immune system that
attack patients' own tissues. Potent new therapies will be available to
treat once mysterious diseases, such as schizophrenia and narcolepsy, at the
level of root causes.
Dozens of gene-inspired "lifestyle" drugs will be available, from
rejuvenators of fading hair-pigment genes to his and hers libido boosters.
If you're male, gene therapy shampoos will reverse your pattern baldness. If
you tend toward obesity, drugs tailored to your genotype will let you
benignly alter your energy metabolism and fearlessly chow down. Biofacials
will rev up dermal genes that make antioxidants and DNA-repairing enzymes,
slowing time's toll on your face.
Comprehensive drug-based personality tune-ups will be in vogue among the
wealthy, just as psychoanalysis once was. If you feel bad, you won't blindly
try one antidepressant after another--you'll undergo molecular neural
analysis to guide the prescription of a cocktail of highly selective
neurotransmitter modulators. You'll select the new inner you from a
psychic-dimension menu whose options will include items like "desired
obsessive-compulsive activation" and "preferred excitability level."
Reproductive clinics will begin cautiously testing biotech's equivalent of
atomic fission: germ-line gene therapy. Its promise has long been obvious:
Thousands of inherited diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, might be
eliminated by patching faulty genes in reproductive cells, causing the fixes
to be passed to future generations. In principle, it's already technically
Web-based premarital counseling services will offer genome screening to help
customers select mates. Before getting serious, couples will be able to
check whether their children would be at high risk from combinations of
disease-predisposing genes they carry.
Genomic genealogy services will proliferate, letting you get to know your
family in fascinating detail, predicts Stephen Fodor, CEO of Affymetrix, the
biochip company. You'll be able to order up genetic profiles of various
family members that show how gene variants associated with things like
perfect pitch, high excitability, and light spirits have passed from
grandparents to certain of the grandkids.
Pet shops will be filled with novelties, such as bioluminescent cats of
varying hues, whose glow will come from genes benignly transplanted from
fireflies. Wolves will become popular pets--implanted with genes from
domestic dogs, they'll be as docile as beagles. Cows outfitted with human
genes will give a perfect facsimile of human milk for infant formula. All
these animals will be routinely cloned to prevent sexual reproduction from
diluting their carefully crafted genomes.
Experiments will be under way to make normal animals smarter, stronger, and
longer-lived--a prelude to the bioenhancement of humans.
There will be "living insurance" companies: places where people deposit such
cells for later use in generating immune-compatible tissues to patch or
replace failing organs.
The average life span in the developed world will top 90. U.S. health costs
will reach a third of GDP.
Key genes involved in aging will be identified, and clinical trials of
anti-aging drugs will be under way. A consortium of life insurers will help
fund the trials, counting on the medicines to boost their profits by
delaying boomers' life-insurance payouts.
Clinical trials of drugs to boost IQ, memory, and other mental powers will
be under way. Heated debate will begin about whether the NIH should fund
research on germ-line gene therapy to enhance future generations' cognitive
performance. Proponents will warn that the U.S. could lose its competitive
edge to nations that apply such technology en masse before it does.
Cryopreserved embryos of endangered animals, many of which will have become
extinct since their embryos were put on ice, will be thawed and cloned. The
animals will be placed in special animal refuges for the remembrance of
Your heart will finally start to give out. Not to worry: The stem cells you
banked more than two decades ago can now be used to generate a reasonable
facsimile of your ticker, thanks to the latest advances in regenerative
medicine. In fact, most of your tissues and a number of major organs can be
similarly regenerated over periods of weeks to months. Such replicas will
cost hefty sums though, making regenerative medicine the focal point of
heated debate about unequal access to biotech's bounty by the rich and poor.
Artificial life forms will be reproducing and evolving in the lab. They
won't be mini-Frankenstein monsters. "They'll be autonomous,
self-reproducing systems created to do useful things in specific
environments," opines Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist in Santa Fe.
For instance, DNA-like nanomachines will be engineered to spread through
patients' cells and churn out selected proteins in quantities geared to
correct out-of-kilter metabolic states.
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