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Search for meaning in our genes The lightbulb moment came early in the week, not at the genetics conference, but in the Melbourne Town Hall.
Standing before an audience of city workers, Dr Francis Collins, boss of the human genome, ditched boffin speak and said it clearly. By 2020, we will have gene based designer drugs for cancer, diabetes, asthma, Alzheimer's and other major diseases. The magic bullet would, he said, also extend to ageing, although, "the death rate would still be one per person". While not exactly the fountain of youth, it was what many had hoped to hear. Ever since Francis Crick and James Watson cracked the DNA puzzle 50 years ago, genetics has held out the promise of a super life. So far it has been more science fiction than fact. But this week, as Melbourne hosted the international genetics congress, undertakings were made. Collins, seen as the most powerful scientist in the world, led the charge. "If we do this right," he said, "the major contributing genes for heart disease and cancer will be identified." He said this would happen by 2010 and apply to most major diseases. Within seven years, then, you would be able to have a test to learn the likelihood of getting many diseases. It would not be a yes or no answer, but a percentage risk. But it was not clear if access to this knowledge would be equally available or that confidentiality was guaranteed. By 2020 there would be pills to treat the diseases. While many in the capacity audience breathed a sigh of relief, Sydney Brenner, a South African geneticist who shared last year's Nobel prize for medicine, cocked an eyebrow. While he respected Collins, he disagreed with him. As far he was concerned, the human genome was data, not knowledge, and would be useless until we understood what it meant. For him, the genome roadshow with pandora jewelry online all its pledges and "flashy presentations" was, for now, "full of noise". Rather than question the predictions, as he did in private, Brenner urged the crowd to switch their focus to diet. "We have an epidemic of obesity," he said. "But you don't need a pill. The real question is, 'Why are pandora animal charms children fed the wrong food?' " Instead of a genetic cause for obesity, he was interested in social interventions. It was a scientific Rubicon, pitting pandora bracelet complete with charms not just a genial American genetics czar against a crusty Nobel laureate. Also at stake was the bottom line in the buzz about the genetics revolution and its ability to transform life. Was it a treasure chest or Pandora's box? Collins, who ended the night by singing We've Really Got the Code on You (sung to the tune of You've Really Got a Hold on Me), had no doubt it would be the biggest medical breakthrough in his lifetime. Brenner, who lives in Cambridge and California, and works at the Salk Institute, was not so sure. A lover of philosophy, he knew that the Greek root for science was knowledge, not measurement, as many weighing up the statistics of the genome seemed to think. Genetic engineering implied not just modified plants, but permanent changes to people. And as the spidery script on the olive T shirt he wore under his navy jacket made clear: "Extinction is forever." Aldous Huxley, whose grandfather Sir Thomas Huxley was a pioneer of evolutionary theory, warned about labs dividing babies into either brains or basket cases in his novel Brave New World. In the 71 years since Huxley's book was published, science has learnt how to influence what we are. So far it is a limited ability, but now that DNA is known, some scientists think they can hear the language God used to create life. The dangers are obvious. It can be argued, as philosopher Philip Kitcher has done, that the screen and abort practices already used for conditions such as Down syndrome are a form of laissez faire eugenics. In the US a type of genetic engineering is well established, with couples offering up to $US50,000 ($A76,000) for good looking, intelligent, blue eyed, blonde women to donate embryos. This, even though there is no guarantee that the desirable traits will be passed on. It could lead, some fear, to Huxley's world of the genetically blessed and the rest. There are people abusing the norms of science. They are the bad guys and they need to be shamed. Dr RICHARD JEFFERSON That certainly is one of Brenner's concerns. He was as in awe of the upside as any of the 2500 delegates at the congress. And the potential is amazing. Since our common ancestor appeared on earth, DNA has been copied down the generations. It holds our secrets, past and present, and since the human genome was sequenced in 2001, it has been able to be read as a string of letters; like a digital tape. Optimists think it will eventually mean we can, if not eliminate, then predict disease and treat it with drugs targeted at genes. But what does the 3 billion bit human genome mean now? That is what Brenner who emphasised the equal role environment played in our make up wanted to know. No one could tell him. As Britain's Sir pandora sale bracelets John Sulston, also a Nobel Prize winner, told reporters at the conference, "The hard bit is understanding it." Brenner also worried about hype and the tendency to look for magic bullets. As he told the Town Hall crowd: "We've come to think we can do what we like with our bodies and medical science will save us." Later, leaning on his walking stick in the foyer, he elaborated. "The human genome won't tell you who you are or even who you might be," he said. "We've got it all out of perspective." Amid the mountain of jargon, graphs and guesswork this week, some, such as Dr Richard Jefferson, from the Spanish based non profit Centre for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture, ventured into politics. "Two billion people exist on less than one dollar a day, and compared to that kind of reality, all this is a big wank," he said. Jefferson, one of a panel of experts enlisted to discuss the ownership of genetic information, warned that private companies were already exploiting discoveries meant for public good. This was the patent wars, in which genetic discovery was being privatised for profit. "There are people abusing the norms of science," Jefferson said. "They are the bad guys and they need to be shamed." Barbara Jasny, an editor with US Science magazine, disagreed. "There are no good or bad guys," she said. "A lot of private companies are involved with research for the public good. It is nonsense to say they are out for profit. Profit motive can lead to public good." The public/private divide about philosophy as much as science was just one of the fault lines. Behind apparent convergence was controversy. Where was the genetic juggernaut heading? Brenner, a mischievous smile playing on his lips, set the tone on the first day when he opted to speak without the aid of overhead projections. He had given up on slides, he said, since discovering that one good phrase was worth 1000 overheads. In a culture of gadgets it was a rebellious stand, and in a way, identified those genetic adventurers who still think small is beautiful. Unlike DNA pioneer James Watson, who believes a massive concentration of money in one "super lab" will cure cancer, Brenner favours localised research. "Science," he said, "is about building communities, not labs. It is ideas, not institutions." Brenner differs from those who have come of age in what he calls the US managerial era. "The mode of science is now dominated by what goes on in America," he said. "It's manufacturing products." His view is that, if science means being a factory hand, the desire for discovery will be quenched. As head of the human genome project, the public group based in the US that beat a private company in the race to sequence the blueprint for life, Collins is a science mega manager. He favours button down shirts rather than Brenner's T shirts and does not have a Nobel Prize, but compensates with formidable clout. Still, as he readily admits, we are years away from the promised breakthrough. Advances have been made, notably with Gleevec, a drug that hits the genetic abnormality behind a type of leukaemia. It works on the leukaemia protein and, while some people have developed resistance, it has produced strong remissions. A barrier to widespread breakthroughs is the fact that few diseases cystic fibrosis and Huntington's chorea are two can be traced to a single gene. Also, while human genes have proved less numerous than first thought we have 30,000, not 100,000 genes their function is much more complex than imagined. Diabetes, for instance, is not just the product of one mutated gene, but many, all interacting in ways that change according to the context. As Nobel laureate Eric Wieschaus from Princeton University said, the same genes are found in almost all animals, but what they do in, say, humans as opposed to fruit flies, is different. Not only that, within one organism, such as a human being, the protein encoded by a single gene does different things at different times. It is anything but simple. Science can document who has what gene, but not how they relate. What has been achieved is, however, impressive. As Wieschaus said, when he was a student in 1970, identifying a single gene seemed impossible. In those days you got a PhD for isolating one of the base pair molecules that form just one rung or an infinitely tiny strand on the DNA ladder. By the mid 1990s, when the human genome project was running ahead of expectations, computers had been devised that could identify 1000 of the microscopic base pairs each second. The hope from optimists such as Collins is that technology will advance at such a rate that intractable problems will be solved. He needs machines to tackle the mystery of how genes work in cascades, with their staggering multiplier effect. Take the human face. Just 33 genes from each parent is sufficient to make faces different enough for us to recognise a loved one from the rest of humanity. Barring identical twins, that is enough divergence to exclude six billion people. Something very sophisticated is going on, and it is far more involved than the soundbite science of those, such as US geneticist Dean Hamer, who have claimed neat solutions. Hamer talked incorrectly of finding a gene for homosexuality. Collins described this as unfortunate. Brenner said Hamer should "be shot". Both, however, agree an intelligence in our cells is turning functions on and off, as well as adapting to changed environments over time. Could it be God? Collins, a Christian, does not rule that out. Even Japanese Nobel Prize winner Susumu Tonegana, who studies memory, is uncertain whether earthly intelligence and identity, what we call the mind, can be known by studying the physical organ at the centre of thinking, the brain. He dismisses the brain/computer analogy, saying the big difference is that, unlike a computer, a brain wires itself to alter its response to information from outside. That is, it reacts to its environment. It all seems to comes down to one word, consciousness, something we still do not understand.
Addressing an overflow crowd at Carlton's Comedy Club, Nobel laureate Sir John Salston was confident that we would discover how a brain makes a mind. But, he said, it could be dangerous. "It could be thought of as being a devastatingly destructive step to really understand what the self is," he said.
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