Science in Society Archive

Book Briefs

Nick Papadimitriou reviews two volumes

Privatization of the Human Genome

Transducing the Genome: Information, Anarchy, and Revolution in the Biomedical Sciences, by Gary Zweiger MacGraw Hill 2000. ISBN 0-07-136980-5

Transducing the Genome: Information, Anarchy, and Revolution in the Biomedical Sciences

The cover sets the tone for this book - a pixilated eyeball enwrapped in a ghostly double helix stares out at us from a pink and grey landscape intersected by precision-made steel rods.

This is the world of Gary Zweiger, geneticist and former Senior Strategic Advisor at Incyte Genomics, a flagship outfit in the genomics industry. In this book, Zweiger sets out to give his account of the Genome Project and - this is the "anarchy" part of the title - how Celera Genomics, produced their own map of the genome by flying in the face of the "official" [ie publicly funded] human genome consortium.

Transduction is the process of converting information, in this case genetic code into electronic bioinformatics. However, "trans-duction" has another meaning, one stemming, as Zweiger tells us in his glossary, from microbiology. Odd that Zweiger then goes on to claim that original meaning is not applicable here. Why not? Surely the biotech meaning [the transfer of chromosomal genes by phage particles containing bacterial DNA] is highly relevant here: Transduction after all is a foundational element in biotech protocol. Is Zweiger ashamed to be messing around with real, live organisms? Either way, this omission encapsulates what is wrong with Zweiger's account of the human genome; at no point does the reader ever feel that Zweiger is talking biology.

It is as if nature, that realm of which both human beings and our genes are part, doesn't extend to the microscopic world that Zweiger makes his fortune in. Instead the world of DNA is seen as a codon, a purely symbolic realm of EST's (Expressed Sequence Tags), PCR's (Polymerase Chain Reactions), and novel sequences, all waiting to be electronically transduced and, inevitably, patented. Zweiger leaves us with no sense in which real consequences in the real, tangible human world will arise as a consequence of genetic modification and gene patenting. True, Zweiger cites human health as a rationale for his endeavours. But human health comes in a poor second place to the real reason why Zweiger et al pursue the transduction of the genome.

Elsewhere in the book, Zweiger speaks of an "assault" on the genome, of "cherry-picking" the most commercially valuable genes. He also compares the unveiling of novel [and patentable] gene sequences as "a feast" for the participants. This is the language of the vulture.

A large part of this book is a celebration of the computerised sequencing techniques used to unravel the genome. In fact Zweiger switches so effortlessly between molecular biology and in silico gene sequencing that the two seemingly blend together, evolution and technology acting in tandem to lead us into the promised land of robust health and even more robust profits.

Zweiger repeatedly denigrates the National Institute [sic] of Health, a mere public body that does not deserve to have its name correctly recalled. In Zweiger's universe, private capital and entrepreneurial initiative beat fuddy-duddy governmental bodies every time. While former NIH director, James Watson decried the "sheer lunacy" of patented gene fragments, Zweiger cites US environmentalist Garret Hardin's mistaken notion of "the tragedy of the commons" - the idea that damaging overuse and misuse occurs when no one in particular owns the land - to justify the act.

Hardin, writing in 1968, was primarily concerned with population growth, and consequent resource limitations. As populations grow, pressure on the commons increases to the point where maximisation of gain by each effectively impoverishes all. Hardin prescribed different solutions including curbs on population growth. Hardin's thesis is based on two serious misconceptions, the first is the Malthusian myth that natural populations will tend to increase exponentially unless held in check by pestilence, famine and war, and the second is that competition and selfishness are necessarily the order of the day. In many ways, Hardin is an apologist for private ownership, a sine qua non of the American way of life. So, it is rather ironic but apt that the ultimate in private ownership is to stake out claims on the human genome.

Zweiger tells us how hundreds of years ago, native Americans were baffled by the concept of land ownership, presumably in order to show how old fashioned it is to object to private ownership. Indeed, there are still cultures such as the Amazonian Indians, who see themselves as being owned by the land, rather than the other way round; and who do not suffer from the "tragedy of the commons". It could be argued that "the tragedy of the commons" and "over-population" are both really the consequence of the private enclosure of the commons by the industrial capitalists and the subsequent intensification of agriculture. Innumerable people were thereby driven off the land to become 'surplus' populations.

The enclosure of common land occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries in England. In order to "preserve" natural resources, and helped by waves of acts of parliament, England's newly emergent landowners evicted the peasantry from land they had previously had rights of use. The peasantry had been able to graze their cattle on common pastureland, had access to sufficient timber for building from coppiced woodlands and used the "wastes" for seasonal pannage. Following the enclosures, the displaced populations ended up in the cities working in appalling conditions in the new industries.

On the new estates, increased capital led to more efficient farming methods and the beginning of farming for profit. The old methods of subsistence farming disappeared with the rural peasantry. The expense of enclosing property necessitated loans, from which developed the modern banking system. At no point was it ever suggested that cooperative ownership might have been a more equitable way of solving the problem of environmental degradation.

Here is how Zweiger justifies gene patenting:

"The USPTO acted in accordance with its mission by assuring an incentive for people to make new gene-based medicines, such as bacterially produced human insulin. Furthermore, in no way did the USPTO restrict anyone's internal production or use of their own genes. Despite these facts, the idea of patenting the material of life continues to disturb many people." ( p65).

Zweiger ends with a selection of FAQ's (frequently asked questions) concerning patenting. While one admires his frankness and willingness to engage in open discourse with the opposition - something Zweiger does repeatedly throughout this book - his apparent naivete is shocking.

"No single institution owns the rights to a majority of known human genes" he gleefully tells us (p213) Has Zweiger never heard of mergers and corporate takeovers? Monsanto's successful claim for exclusive rights to methods for identifying genetically altered plants (see "Monsanto Torpedoes Ag-Biotech", this issue) and their successful prosecution of the US farmer, Percy Schmeiser (for accidentally growing "Round-Up" crops after they contaminated his land) indicate how terrifyingly misplaced Zweiger's assurances are.

This is, of course, more of Zweiger's "anarchy", the reign of economic competitiveness with minimal government regulation is considered not only desirable but just. Zweiger also insists on how much better decentralized scientific research from private funding is to publicly funded research. He then actually compared private-sector genomics to anarchy, claiming that methods such as those he espouses have the advantage of not having an authoritative structure. He admits that patents could hinder scientific progress, and generally tries to smooth talk his way out of a tight corner by stating that patent rights are not usually invoked. So, why patent in the first place?

Animal Experiments Worse Than Useless

Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experiments on Animals by C. Ray Greek MD and Jean Swingle Greek DVM, Continuum International, 2000. ISBN 0-8624-1226-2

Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: The Human Cost of Experiments on Animals

This book is unusual in that it challenges the efficacy of using animals in medical research rather than the more familiar issue of whether animals should be awarded moral consideration. Both co-authors are familiar with animal research from their training as veterinary surgeon and anesthesiologist. While the overlap with animal welfare issues is acknowledged, the main bulk of the book is dedicated to analysing the core assumptions of the scientific community concerning the necessity for animal experimentation, and how these are further locked in place by vested interests and a misguided public.

Vivisection originates in second century Rome with Galen, a physician to the gladiators and experimenter of great energy, uniquely placed to study human anatomy and physiology. However, Galen was stymied by the emergent Church, which forbade human experimentation, and proceeded to work with goats, pigs and monkeys instead.

By the time of the Renaissance, Galen's theory that the body was governed by humours was obsolete. So, for a while, was vivisection. The new humanism challenged the Church's objections to human autopsies, and by the early seventeenth century, texts on human anatomy were beginning to appear. Much of our basic medical knowledge stems from human autopsies carried out at this time: blood circulation, cancer, the function of the lungs and other vital organs.

However, animal modelling came back into favour as a consequence of the strict and conservative disposition of nineteenth century Europe. The laboratory was erected as the "true home" of research, and soon a scientific elite established the orthodoxy of using animals in research.

This was not based solely on the belief that animals - seen as a kind of "trial run" for humans - provided adequate material for research. According to the authors, the concentration on vivisection was less one of science following its own inexorable logic than of science asserting its moral preeminence. One noted French professor of medicine insisted that vivisection was necessary as a "protest on behalf of the independence of science against interference by…clerics and moralists."

Vivisection gained further status in the US as a consequence of legislation passed by congress in the nineteen thirties. A rare case of parity between animal and human responses to a drug following a disastrous clinical trial (and the Greeks make it clear these are rare) convinced scientists that henceforth, animals should be used in testing drugs. Thus the intimate relation between vivisection and drug development was established.

Sacred Cows and Golden Geese claims that animal research fails to produce meaningful data for the simple reason animals differ from humans in the biochemical makeup of their bodies. Animals, and animals differ among themselves, react in distinct ways to different chemicals. To extrapolate from the responses of rats or mice or chimpanzees to humans is at best dangerously deluded and at worst deceitfully selective: which animal response is to be indicative if different species react differently?

This book maintains that, contrary to popular myth, the really impressive cases of drug discovery did not result from testing chemicals on caged animals, but of serendipity and good clinical observation.

Yet so powerful is the hold that animal research has on the medical establishment that thalidomide was released in the US in 1957 despite a clear association between its use and birth defects in human babies. Researches were unable to duplicate the human response in animals, and what should have been an immediate withdrawal was delayed with tragic consequences. The inefficacy of animal testing contributes significantly to iatrogenic diseases which kill 100,000 Americans a year, and yet paradoxically, it is these same tests that are cited in court in the drug industry's defence. A combination of institutional inertia and vested interests - think of all those expensive animals, their upkeep, the equipment - ensure that animal testing will not go away easily. Every year sees the US National Institutes of Health pouring billions of dollars of tax payers' money into experiments that produce no useful results, and may even be dangerously misleading.

Practitioners themselves are pointing out the futility of animal testing. Dr. Ralph Heywood, Director of Huntingdon Research Center is quoted as saying that the correlation between adverse reactions in humans and animals is between 5 - 25%.

Another emerging role for animals in the medical world is as organ donors, and the dangers of xenotransplantation are well covered here. The dangers of new lethal viruses are highlighted, though the authors are under the delusion that genetic engineering will make the process safe.

This is a startling and thought-provoking book, and one that neither the public nor the biomedical establishment can afford to ignore.