Why We Should Still Be Excited About Biotechnology

The typical romantic relationship passes through several stages. First there’s the infatuation—the euphoria, the lionization of the love interest, the sense that the object of one’s affection is perfect. Over time, this fades to a more realistic kind of love, one that recognizes the person’s foibles and faults while still appreciating the undeniable good qualities.
Business is as susceptible to these irrational emotions as any high school student. Biotechnology in particular has been the recipient of some of the most intense public sentiment, positive and negative, of any industry. It is a field with a fascinating history—full of hopes, fears, and disappointments. Back in its infancy, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were high expectations for companies to make a discovery that would bring exorbitant returns for investors and the public. But expectations always outrun reality. This is especially true of a field in which many place their hopes for miracle drugs and treatments for humanity’s worst diseases. The necessarily slow pace of discovery and development often means a high rate of disillusionment.

The disappointing parts of its history notwithstanding, biotechnology should continue to excite us. There haven’t been many magic potions and wonder drugs, but the industry has delivered tangible results. Synthetic human insulin, for example, is taken for granted today but still stands as a monument of bioscience. The industry has also demonstrated considerable staying power and resilience. When the global financial crisis hit, biotech endured. According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the sector grew by 6.4 percent from 2001 to 2010, even as the economy at large saw significant job losses. Biotech “weathered the recession much better than the overall economy and other leading knowledge-based industries,” a 2012 BIO industry report said. It is also an area in which the United States enjoys a commanding lead; the U.S. is home to the majority of the world’s leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies.
To talk about biotech’s future, it helps to understand its history. Though medical biotechnology, the industry’s largest subsector, has been around since before the discovery of antibiotics, what we think of as modern biotechnology didn’t begin until the 1970s, with the advent of genetic engineering. Scientists had found a way to “cut and paste” DNA using special enzymes. This was a revolutionary achievement, made two decades after James Watson and Francis Crick had changed genetics forever by discovering the structure of DNA.
With genetic engineering, investors and the public developed certain expectations of biotechnology. Many people believed, for instance, that so-called gene splicing spelled the end of certain diseases. In theory, all that needed to be done was to alter or replace defective genes, which coded for faulty proteins, which led to all sorts of nasty conditions in the human body.
“Gene therapy” was hyped as the ultimate cure-all for genetic diseases, especially cancer. In practice, however, scientists ran into all sorts of problems, from the body’s rejecting the new genetic material to the death of trial patients. Only now, some four decades later, is gene therapy offering reliable, albeit limited, results with the approval of Glybera, a drug that treats a protein deficiency.
Dashed hopes are an unfortunate feature of science. The media certainly doesn’t help. When an important discovery is made, especially one with obvious clinical potential, three things usually happen. First, the public, goaded by nuance-free news headlines, assume that this discovery can quickly and easily be transformed into a viable medical treatment for humans. Second, these unrealistic expectations are inevitably deflated. Third, many people focus their frustration on scapegoats. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, the many conspiracy theories about Big Pharma.
In 1998, the late Judah Folkman revealed that he had eradicated tumors in mice using certain statin drugs. This was the culmination of Folkman’s long work in targeting the growth of the small blood vessels that feed tumors. Folkman’s discoveries threw the public into a state of excitement. Even experienced scientists gave in to the euphoria of the news. James Watson was quoted as saying that Folkman “is going to cure cancer in two years.” The human desire for easy answers to difficult questions is nowhere more potent than in science. Most people still talk of a “cure” for cancer, even though it is highly unlikely that a single cure-all treatment will ever be developed for the many different kinds of cancers that exist.
When it comes to science, the public’s love of discovery has been balanced at times by intense fear and even paranoia. In the 1970s, genetic engineering brought fears of apocalyptic scenarios brought on by mutant pathogens. The fear was that modified genes, inserted into viral vectors, could create new superbugs that would spread uncontrollably. Today, there is similar hyperbole surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture (though the preening critics of GMOs don’t seem to oppose diabetics’ use of insulin, which is created with genetically modified E. coli. bacteria). Well, it’s been four decades since genetic engineering revolutionized biology, and the world has yet to be consumed, accidentally or otherwise, by a synthetic supervirus.
Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, the field of genomics has provided a foundation for building a new era of applied science. Genomics studies the genome, which is the total genetic material of an organism. This allows researchers, for instance, to examine why treatments work for certain individuals but not for others. It also gives us a broader, more complete view of disease. Eric Lander, a renowned geneticist, has predicted that genomics will eventually allow for much more detailed knowledge of psychiatric disorders, which are not observable in the body the way that cancer and tuberculosis are. The biotech industry will eventually translate this knowledge into medical treatments—just as it did with genetic engineering. Of course, it takes much longer than people would like. Biotech has always been a field in which delayed gratification is the ultimate virtue. If the world would just have patience, the payoff will be magnificent.


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