The big headline from the OVP Tech Summit last week came when UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska called on everyone to quit being so smug, and get serious about turning Seattle into a major league innovation cluster. But later that day, I was lucky to be the only journalist in the room, along with a couple dozen VCs and entrepreneurs, for a fascinating 90-minute conversation on how biology is going digital and what it means for society. Two world-class biologists, Leroy Hood and Irv Weissman, weighed in on the profound questions this technology raises for science, medicine, politics, and, yes, religion.
OVP managing director Carl Weissman, son of the above-mentioned Stanford University stem cell researcher, got the ball rolling. He asked about when full human genomes will be sequenced for as little as $1,000, and for the participants to comment on the implications. Hood, a pioneer in the field of high-speed gene sequencing, said he sees the $1,000 genome coming within five years – and that it could cause a lot of trouble if not handled correctly.
If the goal is to gain a far deeper understanding of what causes diseases, and what makes us human, then simply having cheap genome sequencing doesn’t necessarily mean scientists will get the answers they need, the researchers said. There’s a risk that people could put too much weight on the idea that genes determine who we are, rather than serve as one important piece of the puzzle in combination with environmental factors, Hood said. Scientists will face a huge challenge of trying to integrate genetic data with information on a person’s surrounding environment, to understand how it all adds up to the person’s current condition, or phenotype, he said.
It sounded like a replay of the old debate about nature versus nurture, which most scientists acknowledge is really all about a complex interplay of the two factors.
The era of rapid DNA sequencing is quickly approaching but little preparation is being done. There are a couple of points here also. How accurate will the DNA sequencing be? Even a few mistakes in the readouts could have large ramifications. I’ve mentioned this earlier. Screening with SNPs has error rates high enough to be a little worrisome. Often to get the price down some corners need to be cut. This might make such use a little problematic for individuals.
But knowing about some aspects of a person’s metabolism could be very important. Some people have an altered form of an enzyme that degrades drugs like morphine much less well than the normal protein. It is very easy for them to overdose on morphine levels that are fine for normal pain management because they just do not metabolize it well. Being able to identify these people easily will change drug regimens. This is a straighforward way to couple genotype with phenotype.
But it will be a long haul with a lot of education. Again, as is usual for us, our technology arrives before our society is really ready for it. And it is not as if we are not dealing with enough stuff.
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