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Biotech Miracles Will Transform Our Lives

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    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2000
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      Decoding the human genome will yield a bounty of biotech miracles that will
      transform our lives in the next 40 years.

      David Stipp
      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
      tumor cell.

      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
      few decades.



      By 2010:

      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
      cystic fibrosis.

      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.



      By 2020:

      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.



      By 2040:

      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
      things past.

      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.


      David Sunfellow
      NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE)
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