Skip to comments.Bursting the genomics bubble
Posted on 04/04/2010 8:49:50 PM PDT by neverdem
The Human Genome Project attracted investment beyond what a rational analysis would have predicted. There are pros and cons to that, says Philip Ball.
If a venture capitalist had invested in sequencing the human genome, what would she have to show for it?
For scientists, the Human Genome Project (HGP) might lay the foundation of tomorrow's medicine, with drugs tailored to your genetics. But a venture capitalist would want medical innovations here and now, not decades hence. Nearly ten years after the project's formal completion, there's not much sign of them.
A team of researchers in Switzerland now argue that the HGP was a 'social bubble', analogous to the notorious economic bubbles in which investment far outstrips any rational cost-benefit analysis of the likely returns. Monika Gisler and her colleagues at ETH in Zürich say in a preprint1 on arXiv that "enthusiastic supporters of the HGP weaved a network of reinforcing feedbacks that led to a widespread endorsement and extraordinary commitment by those involved in the project".
Some scientists have already suggested that the HGP's benefits were hyped2. Even advocates admit that medical benefits may be a long time coming, and will require advances in understanding, not just the patience to sort through all the data.
This contrasts with some of the claims made while the HGP was underway between 1990 and 2003. In 1999 the leader of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium (IHGSC) Francis Collins claimed that the understanding gained by the sequencing effort would "eventually allow clinicians to subclassify diseases and adapt therapies to the individual patient"3...
(Excerpt) Read more at nature.com ...
meh. No one knew what the first trigonometry tables would lead to in architecture and physics, either.
It was oversold at the time, but it needed to be done. It will take decades and piles of unforeseen biological, medical, and pharmaceutical advances to put this knowledge to use.
There’s “general understanding” and then there’s “immediate technological benefit to humanity”. It may have advanced the former than the latter. That’s life though. At least it isn’t a disaster like so-called “climate science”.
A venture capitalist may have wanted benefits or products, but by their nature, they invest in hundreds or thousands of speculative products, hoping that if even a few make it, they will more than repay all the others.
Unless you have a magic wand, high payoff comes coupled with high risk. Alas, government control of medicine will prevent a downstream high payoff for the venture capitalist. That understanding will dry up future investments, making the government grant process not just helpful, but mandatory. Expect to hear whining about how the Government HAS to fund research in 3, 2, 1....
I take with a huge grain of salt any publication that thinks economic bubbles are bad. Bubbles are what they are -- an outcome of the free market. To claim they are bad is to then put in place a mechanism to do away with them -- some form of gov't regulation.
In the case of the article, the point could have been made without using the ludicrous economic bubble analogy. This project is a liberal control project and the reporter insists on using liberal control mechanisms to describe it.
“But a venture capitalist would want medical innovations here and now, not decades hence.”
And whose fault is that? Who is it that pumps fiat money and credit into the economy decade after decade causing constant boom-bust cycles thereby incentivizing venture capitalists to seek nothing but short-term “here and now” innovations (i.e., profits) rather than looking to the long-term?
There’s nothing inherently short-term about venture capitalists; they respond to economic incentives and signals just like the rest of us. If they have abandoned the long-term in favor of the short-term, it’s because there are powerful incentives (such as constant uncertainty about the future stability of the market) to do so.
However, the more important point is not economic. The more important point is that the science itself has proven to be a disappointment; life and all its characteristics (for example, it’s physical forms) cannot be reduced to, or explained by, genes. The disappointment is a repetition of what happened in the 1980s with “genetic engineering”: the press was full articles declaring that this new technology would conquer diseases like cancer in just a few years; new strains of plants would be engineered to resist all sorts of blights; etc. Turns out that nature (as usual) is not so simple, and she constantly threw curve balls to the scientists involved. The venture capitalists who had originally believed the claims of the scientists and their various spokesmen pulled out, and learned their lesson by the time the Human Genome Project came around.
Add to that gene copy number variations, inversions, SNPs and any other spontaneous mutations. Oy Vey!
A drug that extends life span prevents Alzheimer's deficits (rapamycin) I found the abstract/article.
FReepmail me if you want on or off my health and science ping list.
To be fair, the genome can also clue researchers into biological chemistry that makes it possible to manipulate epigenetic factors or simply find new possible medications that will interact with an unwanted biological situation.
Epigenetics now seems to be the route to follow in future research. We would not have known that without the genome project.
Oh, BTW, couple of weeks ago Science News ran a piece about horses. Seems that men and horses share vast stretches of identical genetic material, in the same sequence, with the same deletions and duplications ~ yet, men are not horses and horses are not men.
The implication is that a good part of our genome persists through what amounts to geologic spans of time.
So much for mutations eh.
The field is not without some successes, though. While it’s pending final FDA review, Human Genome Sciences and Glaxo Smith-Klein will be selling Benlysta, the first novel treatment for Lupus in over 50 years by 4Q10 or 1Q11. The drug also may have some applicability to other autoimmune diseases, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis.
That's how powerful epigenetic phenomena are. I see it as a "feed forward" element in the system.
It is as if I say “having the entire book copied down is a good thing!”
and you point out “not everybody reads the book the same way!”.
You have a good point, but it doesn't detract from the first point.
Epigenetics changes how the “book” is read. Genomics is knowing what is in the “book”.
The trait, no matter how “epi” genetic, is determined by HOW the genome is read (epi) as well as what is in the genome (genetic). Knowing what the genome is helps to understand epigenetic factors just as much as genetic factors.
Your idea that due to the importance of epigenetic factors, the genome is somehow less important is a disconnect from the fact that epigenetic factors influence how the genome is read. You still have to know and understand the genome to fully understand EITHER genetic or epigenetic inheritance.
Duh. It will still turn out to be a disappointment. For example, during fertilization, an egg actually goes through a process of selecting a sperm. By what criteria? They are almost certainly environmental conditions (hormones, sugar levels, whatever) both during the selection process and when the constituents were formed. Hence, the epigenetic "selects" the genetic.
I never said the genome project was useless, but the results are of significantly less determinative value than was touted; hence the financial performance of the resulting products will likely be a disappointment to the investors who plunked down their hard cash to finance the project. Considering the power and complexity of epigenetic factors, it will take vastly better instrumentation and computing power than we have now to even observe the process, much less characterize it. We have a very long way to go.
What we still need to know in detail, for both the genomic and epigenomic factors; and for which sequencing the genome gives us the boundaries of the map at least; is what “roads” or “trails” lead to each genetic or epigenetic state.
How many DOEs have you done with second and third-order combinatorial factors? How many were done with catalysts in concentrations on the molecular scale. How many of those catalysts were only momentarily involved at a precursor stage?
We have a long way to go. So far, the performance of those investments are likely a disappointment.
As far as research, it is already paying dividends.
In one hundred years its contribution will be invaluable.
The payoff will be a lot more immediate and direct than any benefit from sending Americans to the moon, by way of analogous example.
Calling the Human Genome Project ‘complete’ may have been the biggest lie told since satan conversed with Eve.