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Life sciences will be crucial safeguard against looming crises, South Africa Nobel-winning geneticist warns

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  • Life sciences will be crucial safeguard against looming crises, South Africa Nobel-winning geneticist warns


    Life sciences will be crucial safeguard against looming crises, SA Nobel-winning geneticist warns

    By: Keith Campbell
    Published: 30 Apr 08 - 16:45
    The life sciences are going to be very important in the future, and, of course, they are going to affect us in a lot of different ways. I think we will face tremendous crises on this planet in the future.

    Crises about health and disease, crises about climate, the weather, and sustainable resources, and I think that, in all of these, knowledge of the life sciences is going to be an important field.

    "So says South African-born 2002 Nobel Medicine Prize co-winner and renowned geneticist Professor Sydney Brenner. "Science is a way of solving problems, and it is the best way."

    The life sciences include medicine, bio- medicine, biochemistry, molecular chemistry, genetics, and all the biological disciplines (botany, zoology, and so on), and their applied offspring, biotechnology. "Biotechnology is just the technology that brings [life sciences] knowledge into action on the planet."

    Biotechnology has been around for a very long time, since at least the development of agriculture, which anthropologists believe happened some 9 000 years ago. "We have practised it ever since, with the domestication of plants and the domestication of animals," he highlights. Interestingly, some scholars suggest that agriculture, and thus biotechnology, was originally developed by women, as a spin-off from their food gathering role in hunter-gatherer societies - they would have been much more familiar with plants and their behaviour than men would have been. The careful breeding of animals and the cultivation of plants promoted the development of attributes in both that were regarded as beneficial by humans, and minimised those attributes regarded as undesirable. This, to all practical intents and purposes, amounted to genetic modification, but executed slowly, on a hit-or-miss basis, and over generations.

    "But now, I think, the more engineering aspects of biotechnology and the organisation of it is going to affect the structure of society," he argues. "Now, of course, how that will actually play out in terms of benefits is, of course, not a decision scientists make. That's a decision society makes as a whole." Ideas are one thing, applied practice is another. And it is societies, through their governments, which have the machinery to turn ideas into applied practice - or, conversely, to stop ideas being turned into practice.

    There can be no denying that the dramatic developments in genetics research and biotechnology over the last quarter of a century have generated anxiety among many people. "There is a custom now, that I think is very disturbing, which is that, when something new is discovered, people don't ask themselves: can this be of benefit to me? They ask: how is it going to harm me?" says Brenner. "And I have to say that the media are largely responsible for the conveyance of misinformation and of scary scenario thinking."

    He believes that this problem first emerged in the 1980s, with "a perception of danger, which was just put to the public in extreme terms - you know, the whole picture of the mad scientist, of opening Pandora's Box, letting the evil out, creating epidemics, and so on." The problem facing geneticists and biotechnologists is explaining what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why they are doing it, in terms that people can understand. Thus, the reason why so many people were hostile to genetically modified plants was that they could see no benefit for themselves in these developments. In the popular mind, the benefits all seemed to be destined for business - to increase profits, not the common good.

    "I think there is better judgment by the public if they can understand the connection between the research and the public good, and so get away from the idea that scientists are doing the research just because they want to be grand," he argues. "So it is largely a matter of presentation - people's perception of things is what counts: it's not what it is, it's how they perceive it. I think we still need a lot of transmission of these ideas, and sometimes the media doesn't help us because they like everything to be quick and simple and often to be a scary scenario.

    "In the past couple of years, there was a survey conducted in Britain which found that there was a lot of public support for these technologies when people could understand what the benefit to them would be," he points out. "Of course, we can point now to 30 years in which nothing harmful has happened. So, medical research is widely supported."

    That this is so, at least in Britain, was illustrated by the results of an opinion poll conducted early last month. In the UK the new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill begins its passage through the House of Commons this month.
    This would allow scientists to create "admixed human embryos", that is, embryos containing a combination of animal and human DNA, for basic or pure scientific research, to understand processes that scientists believe could, in due course, have practical applications - for example, ascertaining how stem cells work. These could be created from a human egg and animal sperm, or by blending cells from human and animal embryos. (Another form of hybrid, known as a ‘cybrid', which is produced by inserting human DNA - from a broken human cell - into an empty animal egg, can already be legally made in Britain, and has been.) This is highly controversial, and has been fiercely denounuced by some church leaders. But the poll, conducted on behalf of The Times of London, showed that 50% of people support the authorising of such ‘human-animal' embryos, as against 30% who oppose it, with 20% undecided.

    Currently, genetics and biotechnology are fields dominated by the US. That country is responsible for some 80% of this research, benefiting from big budgets and large numbers of people, creating a momentum that will endure for some time. But not, Brenner suspects, forever. "I think what has not yet been digested, least of all in America, is the huge impact the development of China and India is going to have, in terms of research and R&D investment - it's just amazing how many PhDs China can produce. And China and India will be one-half of the world's population, while America will be something like 5%. So they will be ten times bigger. This is something that people are now trying to get to grips with and I think that this is going to have a huge impact on what people can do."

    So, what benefits are genetics and biotechnology likely to bring humanity over the next 10 to 15 years? Brenner identifies two main areas: the treatment of chronic diseases, and the combatting of infectious diseases.

    "Learning about our immune systems and learning how they react, and are, of course, finding the means to regulate them, are going to be very important. Antibodies are already becoming a source of really dramatic drugs in cancer research. They are the things of the day." Our immune systems also sometimes attack us, and this is also something that has to be understood and countered. "Intervening at this level to try to lessen the effects of the ‘wearing out of the machinery', so to speak, is going to be important," he adds.

    "I also think that what is going to be important is the war on infectious diseases, which are coming back again," he warns. Thus, we have the serious problem of methicillin- resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection, caused by staphylococcus aureus bacteria, which can resist all but the most powerful drugs and which can cause serious illness, especially among older people and those with weakened immune systems. Ironically, MRSA is an especial problem in hospitals, and it is estimated that 1,2-million American hospital patients are infected annually. In Britain, it is estimated that about 1 000 patients die each year as a direct or indirect result of MRSA infection.

    Then there is severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which emerged in southern China in November 2002, and is caused by a previously unrecognised coronavirus, now designated the Sars-associated coronavirus (Sars-CoV). Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a crown-like or halo appearance when viewed through a microscope; they usually cause only mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness in humans, although they have on rare occasions been linked with pneumonia. But in animals, including dogs, cats, birds, pigs, and mice, they can cause severe disease. Sars-CoV, however, killed 774 people worldwide (out of 8 098 known to be infected) during its original outbreak (from November 2002 to end July 2003). "The Sars epidemic was controlled because the medical authorities identified everybody who was infected and they have made sure they can diagnose it the next time," explains Brenner. "We've had no new outbreaks of Sars since then."

    A third example of a modern infectious disease that could threaten humans is the H5N1 variety of avian influenza (bird flu). This claimed its first human victim, a three-year-old boy, in Hong Kong, in 1997, but was not detected in humans again until early 2003, again in Hong Kong. In birds, it has since spread across Asia to Europe and Africa.
    Among humans, it has infected people across Asia, in parts of Africa (Djibouti, Egypt, and Nigeria), and in one European country (Turkey). Up to last month, there have been 380 cases of human infection by H5N1 worldwide, of which 240 have been fatal.

    The worst-hit countries have been Indonesia, with 132 cases, of which 107 were fatal, and Vietnam, with 106 cases resulting in 52 deaths. Fortunately, all cases seem to have been bird-to-human infection. But scientists fear that a mutation of the H5N1 virus could result in a strain which could easily be transmitted from human to human, creating a pandemic with the potential of putting millions of lives at risk. "Whenever you have a lot of animals and humans close together, as with chickens and people in South-East Asia, you are bound to have viruses move from the animal to the human, because that's nature," cautions Brenner. "Even rare events will happen."

    And genetics and biotechnology could prove crucial in dealing with these new diseases and events. "I think that these are the benefits that people will hope to see," from these fields of research.

    "At the moment, the whole of biotechnology is powered by strictly commercial objectives," asserts Brenner. "Essentially, if a line of research can lead to the making of more money, then it is pursued."

    That is why most biotechnology funding is directed into medical research, and why other promising fields of genetics and biotechnology are suffering from financial neglect. "The venture capitalists do not support them, because the aim of the venture capitalist is not to improve technology, nor improve health. His aim is to improve his own financial health, if I can put it that way," he argues. So, it is necessary to create other mechanisms to fund less or non-commercial areas of genetics and biotechnology.

    There is, however, one non-medical area which is now attracting investment. "The biotechnology of alternative energy resources - biofuels. This is the big talk now," says Brenner. "Lots and lots of people are now studying this - is there any way that biotechnology could control the production of carbon dioxide? Since the price of oil has rocketed, things become possible that, before, weren't worth it."

    The intersection of research and business puts emphasis on intellectual property and patenting. But things are not straightforward, he cautions. "There are very few patents in the biotechnology field which have earned large amounts of money." Moreover, patenting does not necessarily protect you. Major corporations have lots of money and many lawyers, and can, if they really want to, break a patent and get away with it. "Your patents are worth exactly the amount of money you have to defend them." And a focus on patenting can be downright harmful to an enterprise, as patenting costs money. "If you are spending more on patenting that you are earning from your patents, then you are patenting too much," he stresses.

    Sydney Brenner was born in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, on January 13, 1927, and matriculated at the age of 15. He then studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, receiving degrees in medicine and science in 1947, publishing his first paper as sole author in 1946. Thereafter, he moved to the UK where, in 1954, he received a doctorate in chemistry at Oxford University. In 1957, he moved to Cambridge and joined the Medical Research Council, becoming director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the Molecular Genetics Unit. It was at Cambridge that he did the work that would later win him the Nobel Prize.

    In 1989, he moved to the US, to California, where he remains resident to this day. In 1996, he became president and director of science of the Molecular Sciences Institute, in Berkeley. He subsequently became a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla.

    In his career he conducted pioneering research with roundworms, organisms which are now commonly used to study genetics, and his research with the tiny (on average, 1 mm long) and transparent nematode worm, caenorhabditis elegans, resulted in important insights into aging, nerve cell function, and con- trolled cell death. Brenner also discovered how the order of amino acids in proteins is determined, and established the existence of messenger RNA.

    In 2002, he was, along with John Sulston and Robert Horvitz, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his discoveries concerning the genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

    Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu