The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

August 8, 2004



“We’ve discovered the secret of life” – Francis Crick, 1953


Scientist Who Unlocked Secret of DNA Dies at 88



“‘We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.’


With this unassuming statement, Francis Crick, who died yesterday, aged 88, and his collaborator James Watson, sent molecular biology in a radical new direction while simultaneously launching the new field of genetics.


“In the 50 years since, the discovery has proved to be among the greatest in the history of science, providing the platform for a deeper understanding of every living organism.


“Crick, who died at Thornton hospital in San Diego, had been suffering from colon cancer.


“‘I will always remember Francis for his extraordinarily focused intelligence and for the many ways he showed me kindness and developed my self-confidence,’ Watson said.


“‘He treated me as though I were a member of his family. Being with him for two years in a small room in Cambridge was truly a privilege. I always looked forward to being with him and speaking to him, up until the moment of his death. He will be sorely missed.’


“Born in Northampton, Crick was a distinguished research scientist and former president of the Salk Institute in San Diego. Watson worked with Crick in the early 1950s at Cambridge University. Their work on DNA resulted in their receiving a share of the Nobel prize in 1962….”


The Guardian – Friday July 30, 2004



For an account of the discovery of the DNA double helix by Watson and Crick, including recollections by both men and commentary on the consequences of their work, link to NPR and select the fourth audio clip.


Gene patents — who should “own” the human genome?


Navigating a Patent Minefield 



“Researchers in Iowa have come up with a plan to get critical genetic tests to patients at risk for rare but devastating eye diseases. It’s working now, but they worry their plan could be a legal time bomb.


“Edwin Stone and Val Sheffield, professors at the University of Iowa, have discovered links between 15 genes and certain eye diseases, which means genetic tests could be developed for the diseases. But often the scientists find the genes or parts of them have already been patented. Any diagnostic test involving a patented gene could infringe on someone’s intellectual property.


“Most of the genes are linked to diseases that affect a small number of people, too few to make tests based on the genes commercially viable. So Stone and Sheffield had an idea: Why not just ask the patent holders for permission to test patients?


“So far, no one has said no. The Iowa clinic is now offering 22 genetic tests at around $200 per gene (complete tests can cost up to $1,000). But it’s not always clear who might own intellectual property associated with one of their tests, and Stone and Sheffield worry that without legislation to protect them, their good luck could run out….”


Wired News: Aug. 04, 2004


Building a biotech mecca…Biopolis…


Singapore Wants You!


The future-friendly city-state has an offer bioscientists can’t refuse:  unrestricted research, top-notch equipment, and limitless funds. (Just leave your chewing gum at home.)



“…Singapore is treating hundreds of scientists like free agents, promising first-class laboratories, top-notch equipment, and more than enough money to pursue work that’s not fundable, or is too controversial, back home. The government is investing more than $2 billion into research of all stripes, hoping to attract leaders in therapeutic cloning, drug discovery, cancer research, and other areas, bioscience all-stars who will in turn help build a local community that will bolster the economy.


“So far, it’s working. A third of the almost 4,000 science PhDs here are foreigners, many with impressive résumés. Edison Liu, former director of the US National Cancer Institute’s Division of Clinical Sciences, moved in 2001 to head the Genome Institute of Singapore. Japanese cancer researcher Yoshiaki Ito brought his entire Kyoto University team to Singapore’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in 2002. Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Sydney Brenner splits his time between the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego and advising Singapore on how to attract more people like him.


“Exhibit A in Singapore’s quest is Biopolis, a $300 million, 2 million-square-foot complex taking shape just outside of downtown. When complete by year’s end, Biopolis will include institutes specializing in bioinformatics, genomics, molecular biology, and nanotech….”


Wired Magazine (Issue 12.08) – August 2004


Maggots join leeches as FDA approved “medical devices”…


Maggots Make Medical Comeback



“Think of these wriggly little creatures not as, well, gross, but as miniature surgeons: Maggots are making a medical comeback, cleaning out wounds that just won’t heal.


“Wound-care clinics around the United States are giving maggots a try on some of their sickest patients after high-tech treatments fail.


“It’s a therapy quietly championed since the early 1990s by a California physician who’s earned the nickname Dr. Maggot. But Dr. Ronald Sherman’s maggots are getting more attention since, in January, they became the first live animals to win Food and Drug Administration approval—as a medical device to clean out wounds.


“A medical device? They remove the dead tissue that impedes healing ‘mechanically,’ FDA determined. It’s called chewing….” – August 3, 2004


Need Title


Pandora’s Baby

A review by Daniel Callahan


Pandora's Baby:  How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution, by Robin Marantz Henig  (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)



“Of all the human biological capacities, procreation is one of the strangest….We all want [children] and when, now and then, someone does not, that is taken as prima facie evidence of derangement. A desire not to have children is now common among many married couples and no less so among many cohabiting couples; and the number of such couples grows all the time.


“Yet if couples of that kind can display a striking singlemindedness, it is as nothing compared with the infertile couple desperate to have a child. The childless will often go to endless trouble and great expense, and put up with a regimen of medicine and self-discipline that can make military boot camp look easy. While surely not the only means of relieving infertility, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is now probably the most widely, and routinely, used. What was, through most of the 1970s, a highly controversial line of research, condemned by the pope and many moralists and theologians, and treated with suspicion by physicians and research scientists, now elicits little ethical or scientific interest. It worked. End of story. At most there are now some calls for a reform of fertility clinics, for the most part unregulated, but the fact that it has taken so many years for those calls to arise is itself testimony to the high place infertility treatment has achieved in modern medicine.


“Robin Marantz Henig tells the story of the emergence and growth of IVF in an interesting and nuanced way, and it is a story well worth telling. As she accurately puts it, the American IVF effort ‘reveals what can happen when society faces a new and frightening technology: how it is first greeted with resistance and expectation of the worst, then with grudging permission, then with acceptance, and finally with incorporation so seamlessly into the culture that no one even notices it any more.’…”


Commonweal – January 30, 2004


Taking a closer look at the assisted reproduction industry…


Big Business, Big Risks?


Critics Say Infertility Treatments Need More Regulation



“Infertility treatment is a $4 billion-a-year business that uses controversial drugs and experimental techniques, and yet is virtually unregulated. Thousands of women each year turn to it in hopes of having a baby, but many scientists, ethicists and policymakers now believe safety concerns are not keeping pace with the rapid growth in the industry.


“Kelli and Bob Yonker of Dallas are typical of most couples who try ‘assisted reproduction.’ They’ve spent months on a grueling drug regimen with a price tag of $30,000.


“‘They always talk about their positive results, and they don’t really tell you the negatives,’ said Kelli.


“‘When you go to these doctors they expect the money immediately,’ said Bob. ‘There’s no payment plan.’


“And for them—no baby.


“In fact, according to a recent report, the vast majority—73 percent—of assisted reproduction treatments fail to produce a baby. Serious questions are being raised about safety and the very loose regulation of the industry.


“The report by the President’s Council on Bioethics calls for much stricter controls, charging that many infertility researchers are moving ‘from the experimental’ stage ‘to clinical practice with relatively little oversight’ or understanding of the long-term health effects….” – August 2, 2004


Getting end-of-life questions right:  Is this life beyond saving?  Is this life worth saving?


Patient Wins Right-to-life Ruling

Analysis by Geoff Adams-Spink

A patient has won his legal battle to ensure that doctors do not withdraw nutrition against his wishes when he is no longer able to communicate.



“Leslie Burke was effectively asking the court to rule that he, not a doctor, is best placed to decide whether his life should be prolonged by medical intervention.


“He is now in his forties and has known since he was a teenager that he has a progressive condition which is very likely to mean that he will need artificial feeding and hydration.


“What worried Mr. Burke was the possibility that doctors could make a decision to withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration - or ANH - on the assumption that his quality of life as a disabled person was too low to merit prolonging it….”


BBC News Online – July 30, 2004


For a discussion of the Burke case and the broader issue of “futile care,” see the article, “Suing for the Right to Live,” by attorney Wesley Smith in The Weekly Standard (March 11, 2004).


Sorting out the ethics of genetic testing…


Birth-defect Tests Bewilder Both Doctors, Parents-to-be


Preventable problems still plague the convoluted, ethically complicated prenatal-screening system.



“When Karen Coveler and her husband began trying to have a child, she told her obstetrician that she wanted to take all the DNA tests she could to determine whether she was at risk of passing on a genetic disease to her child. Based on her Ashkenazi Jewish background, Coveler was offered 10 tests, all of which were negative, and she had a normal pregnancy.


“It was not until her son, Benjamin, was born that she discovered he was deaf. And it was not until a few weeks later that she learned a simple blood test could have alerted her to that possibility even before conception.


“‘They told me the test is not offered because the condition is not considered to be “severe” or “life-altering,” which I find very difficult to swallow,’ said Coveler, 30, of Houston. ‘It certainly has been life-altering for myself and my son.’


“Coveler says she would not trade Benjamin, now a year old, for the world. But she is one of many people demanding to know why screening tests for certain genetic conditions, including deafness, mental retardation and breast cancer, are not being offered to them—even, in some cases, when they ask.


“Too many health-care providers, critics say, have not educated themselves about the genetic tests that could benefit their patients. Others, pressed for time, simply don’t communicate what can be complex information.


“And some choose not to inform their patients of certain tests they have deemed inappropriate, making a value judgment about abortion, disabilities or risk that patients say they have a right to make for themselves….”


The New York Times – August 3, 2004


Worth considering…



“There are people who say they wish Christianity to remain as a spirit.  They mean very literally, that they wish it to remain as a ghost.  But it is not going to remain as a ghost.  What follows this process of apparent death is not the lingering of the shade; it is the resurrection of the body.  These people are quite prepared to shed pious and reverential tears over the Sepulchre of the Son of Man; what they are not prepared for is the Son of Man walking once more upon the hills of morning.  These people, and indeed most people, were…quite accustomed to the idea that the old Christian candle-light would fade into the light of common day.  To many of them it did quite honestly appear like that pale yellow flame of a candle when it is left burning in daylight.  It was all the more unexpected, and therefore all the more unmistakable, that the seven-branched candle-stick suddenly towered to heaven like a miraculous tree and flamed until the sun turned pale.  But other ages have seen the day conquer the candle-light and then the candle-light conquer the day.  Again and again, before our time, men have grown contented with a diluted doctrine.  And again and again there has followed on that dilution, coming as out of the darkness in a crimson cataract, the strength of the red original wine.”


“At least five times…the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.  In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.  How complete was the collapse and how strange the reversal….”


The Everlasting Man, by G. K. Chesterton (Image Books, 1955), pp. 263-64, 260-61.




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