Why tinker with genes?
Are we due for a new industrial revolution with biology ("biotechnology") becoming an important arm of industry? New forms of life are involved -- does that make the new technique dangerous? Is it to the '80s what electronics was to the '50s, as some experts claim? A recent MacNeil/Lehrer report produced by Public Television Stations WNET and WETA looked into these questions. Quotations from that broadcast are reproduced with permission.m
Biotechnology manages to sound important, difficult, and frightening all at the same time -- exactly the kind of topic to bring out the best in Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer (the editor and associate editor, respectively, of the invaluable MacNeil/Lehrer report). For a program on this subject (aired March 10) they followed their usual techinique -- finding experts who represent different points of view and then with skillful questions drawing out the information laymen want in language laymen understand.
MacNeil began by reminding listeners of a recent MacNeil/Lehrer Report on the use of genetic engineering to produce interferon -- "a substance," he said "produced naturally by human cells when attacked by a virus. Scientists hope that it will be a 'wonder drug,' able to fight many diseases, including perhaps cancer." So, MacNeil said, "it was good news that it will be available in much larger and cheaper quantities." He found the method used equally interesting: "altering the genetic structure in simple bacteria to make the bacteria actually manufacture the substance desired."
"That's only one example of a revolutionary scientific field called biotechnology, a field that promises to turn the biology lab into a major arm of industry," MacNeil continued. "To some visionaries, biotechnology marks a new industrial revolution, which the United States can lead. To others it is fraught with dangers because it involves new forms of life."
Jim lehrer pointed out that biotechnology isn't all that new. "For instance, the simple and ancient process of fermentation is a form of biotechnology. Everything from yogurt and coffee to beer and pickles has been produced for years through biology: putting a cucumber in vinegar or brine, say, and turning it into a pickle.
"The new breakthrough is the extension of uses of biotechnology, as dramatic new ways to control natural biological processes are discovered. Those in the know say it is now an industry that is about where the electronics field was in the '50s, a handful of small companies and engineers with a lot of ideas and dreams."
At this point the program switched to an interview between the report's science reporter, Anita Harris, and Dr. Peter Farley, the president of one of these new companies, the Cetus Corporation of Berkeley, Calif.
Dr. Farley hopes his business will be worth a billion dollars by 1990. "We, the biological community," he says, "have developed basic tools that are just incredibly powerful compared to what came before. And we're going to find that we can apply biology across the spectrum of different industries.
"Biotechnology," Dr. Farley explained, "is really the ability to harness individual micro-organisms," and a micro-organism is "basically a little chemical factory. That organism's only role in life is to make more organisms. But in the meantime, it's just a bundle of chemistry, so that in essence, biotechnology is harnessing the incredibly complex chemistry that exists within these micro-organisms."
One of the most immediate effects of his firm's work will be seen in the energy field, he says. "As we all know, alcohol's immediate application is [as] a substitute for gasoline. At the moment we make that alcohol from corn. But we know there's a finite, limited amount of corn that we can grow in this country. And if we're ever going to make a real dent in our gasoline needs, we've got to engineer microorganisms that can eat, that can ferment, things other than corn, so that we can make alcohol from pulp and paper waste, or from certain grasses, or from various types of plant life -- even trees. . . .
"Nature for eons and eons has been carrying out just natural mutations, to change an organism as it evolves from one set of characteristics to another. And this is what Darwin is all about, and it's how we all evolved. What we've been able to do is to speed up evolution, if you will. We can now literally get our hands on the genetic makeup of micro-organisms, and pick the characteristics that we want.
"For instance, in the cases of the alcohol- producing organism, we wanted it to work at a higher temperature, we wanted it to work in the presence of higher levels of alcohol. We were able to build into that organism the capability of doing that. Now this may have taken hundreds and thousands of years to happen in nature. We've able to accomplish it in less than two years' time in the laboratory."
Mr. MacNeil then turned to the president of another firm doing biotechnology work. Dr. Leslie Glick of the Genex Corporation, Rockville, Maryland, does not believe that the new techniques are going to dislocate big industries. In fact he believes that the chemical industry "is going to use this technology. In some cases they will use it through the independent genetic engineering firms. . . but in other cases they're going to be developing it in-house."
Mr. MacNeil mentioned -- with raised eyebrows -- that he had heard that "the new industry could produce, or replace, or displace industries which now account for, at one level, $12 billion a year in business and, at another level, $20 billion."
Wild exaggeration or fact? MacNeil wondered. "Oh," said Dr. Glick matter-offactly, "I think the level of business generated. . . would easily surpass those. . . . If you consider what it might be like in the year 2000. . . ."
Dr. Glick also said that the new industry is attracting the private capital it needs and that as far as competition with the rest of the world goes, "I don't think there's any question but that we are at this point in time far ahead in developing recombinant DNA technology commercially."
Dr. Zsolt Harsasnyi agreed. Dr. Harsanyi, on leave from the department of microbiology at the Cornell University Medical Center in New York, where he headed the department of genetics, is currently directing Congress's Office of Technology Assessment. The OTA is examining what the role of government should be in this new industry and is also "essentially an early warning system. . . . We try to find out what are the social impacts, the political impacts, the psychological/technological type impacts. . . ."
To answer the question, "Is this [technology] all promise, or are there some things that we have to be worried about?" Mr. MacNeil introduced a professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Jonathan King.
Dr. King said he certainly agreed "that the biological technology is going the usher in a whole new era of transformation of manufacturing process, of using biological methodologies. But the very reason that's so powerful -- because the organisms that produced the chemicals grow and reproduce -- means that you have a new kind of hazard. . . . If by accident. . . you produce an organism that does have deleterious consequences and it gets out to the environment, you can't just clean it up, because it may establish and be out there permanently. . . .
"Secondly, many of these organisms are derivatives or cousins of organisms that are agents of human disease. That's why so much is known about them by microgeneticists: we studied them because they were related to micro-organisms that cause disease. . . ."
"Secondly, because of this qualitative difference in the hazards and the biological technology, I just think it's very unlikely that the net social benefit is going to be met by the private interests represented by the investors in, say, Cetus Corporation. . . .
"If it turns out that some particular corporation has facilities that are not available in the public sector, then the National Institute of Health can. . . contract out that production."
Dr. Glick disagreed with Dr. King "100 percent." Any basic research, he maintained "whether it affects the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry, or any industry" receives public funds -- the rationale being "to benefit the public." The logical extension of Dr. King's argument, he said, "is that the goverment should get into the manufacturing business, it should get into marketing, it should get into sales, it should get into finance and development. It's going to have to raise money to do this. . . . The reason why I'm in the business I am in is not because I can see immediately any large amount of money. . . . It's because I like doing something that is not part of a whole army of people."
Dr. King pointed out that originally, when there were no commercial facilities for producing vaccine, "the government did produce [it] and made an excellent job of it. So, in terms of socially needed products I don't see any problem with the government producing it."
"Is it conceivable," MacNeil asked, "that some of these micro-organisms or bacteria could get out of these places and actually cause epidemics or cause danger to human health?
Dr. King said that it was. He pointed out that "there's no regulation over the industrial development of recombinant DNA technology. There's regulation within the university research sphere, but not within the corporate sphere.
But that is not the only reason Dr. King believes the new industry should be managed by government. "The entire technology has been developed in the public sector by government funds, by billions of dollars that came from the sweat of the taxpayer's brow. Now," he said, "after 30 years of all this development, private interests are coming in to skim off the cream.So, in a sense, I don't like the corporate development just on those grounds alone. I think it should stay in the public sector. . . .
The question of hazards was polished off in a few quick words in the last minute of the program. Dr. Glick said he didn't think that the dangers were anywhere near "what they were cracked up to be four years ago. . . . I think there's steadily increasing evidence that the hazards are going down." It was Dr. King's hope that there would be "much stronger participation by the Environmental Protection Agency's Occupational Safety and Health Administration in these processes."