Moira Gunn hosts Tech Nation and its popular segment BioTech Nation, which airs weekly on over 200 public radio stations, on the NPR channels on Sirius Satellite Radio, internationally on American Forces Radio International, and to anyone, anywhere over the Internet. Originally a computer scientist and engineer, Moira started BioTech Nation rather unexpectedly in the spring of 2004 and now, she’s written a book about her experience called Welcome to Biotech Nation: My Unexpected Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas
* FYI, Moira came up with the title of this post, so she referred to herself as an “Internet babe.”
Question: Why is there a martini glass on the cover of your book?
Answer: I conceived the idea of a weekly biotech segment—and blurted it out, I might add—at a well-lubricated press event whose purpose was to lure the media into interviewing or writing about a host of biotech companies. My publisher gave me the choice of either a martini glass or a huge microphone with DNA coming out of it. It was an easy choice—but please, take note: The stem of the martini glass is the familiar double helix described by Crick and Watson, and our friend, the olive, has been given a special biotech twist.
Question: Can someone without a PhD in genetics understand your book?
Answer: Anyone can understand a book with a martini glass on its cover! And besides, I didn’t know anything about biotech when I made my grand announcement. It was just so clear that there was so much going on in biotech, and biotech was booming. How could I ignore it?
It turned out not to be as hard as you might think. First I found competent people who could explain it all in understandable ways. The trick was avoiding lots of jargon. I call it “Minimalist Science”—the least you need to know to get the point.
Also, since BioTech Nation is radio, it meant that people could only use words. With a little focus, they could make their point quite simply. As an added bonus, I was surprised to see how well what they said translated to the page.
Question: Just how pervasive is biotech in our everyday lives?
Answer: Today, one third of the world’s economy is driven by biotech. I was shocked to learn that, but think about it: There’s the big pharmaceuticals, there’s what we usually think of as biotech R&D and their start-ups, there’s genetically-modified agriculture, there’s the new biofuels like ethanol, there’s manufacturing processes, there’s bio-defense, and the list goes on. The growth potential in these industries can all be attributed to biotech.
And let’s not forget computers and the Internet. Biotech is contributing massively to the information explosion all around us. That day when we finally read your DNA, you’ll get three billion letters. Like three gigabytes on your hard drive, or three one-gig chips in your digital camera. Of course, we only read your DNA once. We’ll be reading your RNA a number of times. The RNA is the other side of the double helix structure. For every letter in your DNA, there’s a corresponding RNA, telling it whether or not to take action. Your RNA changes over your lifetime, and so we’ll need to read it more than once.
Today’s biotech ventures are hoping to see if your DNA/RNA combination will tell us instantly which drugs will work for you and which won’t. There’s also hope that we will be able to diagnose depression, cancer and all sorts of medical conditions. And that’s only the beginning. Think of biomedical devices constantly monitoring your status and wirelessly phoning it in to central websites. Computer programs constantly checking this data and alerting your doctor. There’s no end to the imaginative ways that biotech will be using computers, creating and storing information, and much, much more.
Question: I thought that he can’t even spell, but you write that we have Dan Quayle to thank for having genetically-modified foods in our supermarkets. How’s that?
Answer: It’s true that the road to genetically-modified foods in American supermarkets can be traced directly back to Dan Quayle, but make no mistake: there’s plenty of credit to spread around in the entire first Bush Administration. Certainly, it was the vice president, who headed up the President’s Council on Competitiveness, and the Council was tasked with improving America’s competitiveness in biotech. Not only were genetically-modified foods not approved at the time, but also very little scientific testing had been done around their impact on humans.
So, how was the Council going to prove they were safe? The president had already issued “Four Principles,” including this one: “Biotechnology products that pose little or no risk should not be subject to unnecessary regulatory review during testing and commercialization.” Dan and the boys chewed on that for a bit, and then they came up with the idea that genetically-modified foods were safe if there was no scientific evidence to the contrary. That sounds almost rational until you realize it works especially well if there isn’t any science at all! Still, it was this “innocent until proven guilty” strategy which enabled the first President Bush to issue an Executive Order making it acceptable to grow and sell genetically-modified foods in the United States.
An interesting side question is “Why is Genetically Modified not printed on our food labels?” The answer is a fluke of timing: The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed by Congress two years before genetically-modified foods were permitted by presidential order. When the food labels were legislated, genetically-modified foods weren’t approved for human consumption. Our food labels tell us everything else in the world about what we’re ingesting, but we don’t know if the food has been grown from genetically-modified seeds.
Question: Do you see a time when every cornfield in Iowa is converted to growing corn for ethanol and the price of corn to eat is sky high?
Answer: I’m not arguing that growing corn or any other crop for ethanol won’t have any impact on the food supply, but I am arguing that this scenario that has been given way too much weight and I have some very precise reasons for saying so.
First of all, the computations about how much corn is taken out of the food supply for every gallon of ethanol to date has cited the first ethanol process that was developed. There is an emergent ethanol process that has been developed which also uses the stalk and other “cellulosic” parts of the plant, as opposed to the kernels of corn. At the same time, John Deere tractor has developed a machine to separate out the kernels of corn from the rest of the plant. In this scenario, we can literally “have our corn and eat it, too!”
In fact, this new process throws off a by-product which can be burned and lessens the total cost of producing the ethanol. This simply points to the nature of technology and innovation. When humans set their minds to solving a problem, amazing things happen. It always does. In fact, science is working hard to find cellulosic plants which are even more efficient than corn. To me, the message is clear: Projecting economics, the available food supply, and all the rest based on the premise that today’s technology is all we will ever have is a fool’s proposition.
Question: You also write about Brooke Shields in your book. What does she have to do with biotech?
Answer: We started BioTech Nation by recording at the international BIO conference in 2004, and Brooke was a keynote speaker at that conference. She revealed that she had undergone an unbelievable seven in-vitro fertilizations and a miscarriage before finally delivering her first daughter. Brooke is known for talking about postpartum depression and her use of anti-depressants, but her biotech story was also poignant.
Her message underscored the advances in in vitro fertilization as well as genetic testing for a panoply of serious diseases and conditions prior to implanting the fertilized egg back in the mother. This in itself is nothing short of a miracle—that we can work with a single cell at such an early stage. A lot has happened since Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, became a reality.
Question: Speaking of Brooke Shields, do you feel that celebrity involvement has hurt or helped biotech?
Answer: Without a doubt, celebrity involvement has helped biotech research. Even though we don’t personally know a celebrity, we have an idea in our head of a living human being – their triumphs and, ultimately, their frailties. Whether it’s Alzheimer’s and Ronald Reagan, Parkinson’s and Michael J. Fox, or even Brooke Shields and her quest to have a baby, these people seem real to us, and that’s when we are finally able to pay attention. You know that their plight has reached our consciousness when we recognize how bad Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s is. We know they are bad conditions, and if there is anything we as humans can do about it, we must.
Question: We keep hearing that the Presidential stem cells are dying. What does this mean?
Answer: That was a tough one to figure out! I was lucky to speak with Dr. Mahendra Rao of Invitrogen, who had recently left the National Institutes of Health, where he had published a special paper, and he explained it in our interview. In 2001, the current President Bush issued the executive order to freeze the current stem cell lines at what existed at that time.
If you were using federal funds for scientific research, you could only use these so-called Presidential stem cell lines. Now, fast-forward to 2007, and everyone has been growing these lines, sort of like the original 49-er’s made San Francisco sourdough bread. Once you get your starter dough going, every time you want more bread, you add more flour and water, mix up a big batch of dough, and then you keep back a piece of the dough to start your next batch.
Unfortunately, a stem cell line isn’t starter dough! It’s precision science, and these stem cells, like every other living thing, want to live and thrive. They weren’t designed to live in Petri dishes, which puts them under chronic stress. As with any living thing, when you stress them, they have a tendency to “change.” But the reason we are developing these stem cell lines is to make all the stem cells identical every single time. Otherwise, the science from one study won’t relate to the next study.
Great care must be taken to watch for these changes. Scientists do this by sampling some of the cells in each new batch. When some of the stem cells start changing, they can no longer be used for their original scientific purpose. Drastic measures can sometimes be taken to save a line, but not always. So, it’s not that the stem cells die, but rather that the stem cell line is producing cells which are no longer identical to the stem cell it started with. To say that the Presidential stem cell lines are “dying” can seem misleading to people who don’t understand the science, but still, it’s a very important concept.
Question: What is your analysis of the stem cell debate? Personally, I would use just about any technology to further medical science, but that’s just me.
Answer: There are a number of drivers in the stem cell debate, and believe it or not, I don’t think it has anything to with whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. Take Missouri, which is a highly conservative state. We all know about the Michael J. Fox political ad on television in support of senatorial candidate Claire McCaskill. He supported her, because she was supportive of stem cell research for Parkinson’s disease. Yet, most people don’t know that Missouri also had on its ballot an initiative re-affirming that stem research in the state would be no more restrictive than the federal guidelines, ensuring that stem cell research could continue there.
It passed with just over a majority, but it broke party lines. One-third of the Republicans voted for stem cell research, one-third of the Democrats voted against stem cell research, and the independent voters were split 50-50. That says to me that people took it personally. It may be religious faith. It may be the fact that they have witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer’s or cancer or Parkinson’s first hand. It could be that some saw the science as a tool for humankind. It may be that some didn’t want the state or the U.S. to be left behind economically.
Still, there’s no doubt that public opinion has changed in this nation, and it’s swaying for whatever reasons toward support of stem cell research. Thus far, we’ve had two votes to expand the Presidential stem cell lines passing in both houses of Congress, and we’ve had two Presidential vetoes. It’s looks to me that for President Bush, it’s personal. He’s not impressed by the politics of it all. That says to me that any change in presidents—no matter what his or her party affiliation—will result in expanded federal funding of stem cell research.
Will the Executive Order issued in 2001 hurt our biotech industry, our biotech economy? At this point, with the sea of change in public opinion and political will, I think the answer is, “Not much.” Keep it up, and oh yeah, there will be a problem. But the Executive Order only applied to federally-funded research. Privately-funded research, corporate research could proceed apace. That said, we have no time to waste. We’ve got to keep our momentum going on all fronts, especially now that the tools for scientific discovery are now much better and much more available.
Sure, there’s been progress overseas and some outsourcing, but I contend that would have happened any way. Possibly less so, yes. Roger Pedersen would likely not have left UCSF Medical School and moved to Cambridge to head their stem cell initiative. But the future of biotech today is not based a few scientists here or a few scientists there. And scientists everywhere are wildly competent and intensely motivated.
Question: Which biotech story had the most personal impact on you?
Answer: I would say what I learned about diabetes was the real eye-opener. First of all, one out of six people worldwide are either pre-diabetic or diabetic—and over half don’t even know it. That holds true in the United States, as well. And there’s more: if you are pre-diabetic, without intervention, in about ten years time you will become a full-fledged diabetic. Your body will have suffered significant damage along the way, leaving you more open to heart attack, stroke, and all the other side effects we associate with diabetes.
Diabetes—and the lead up to full-blown diabetes—is a ticking bomb in our midst only we can’t hear the ticking. There’s new technology which can help us recognize this condition, and in my opinion, we need to jump on it. One example is a simple device over which you simply hold your arm for thirty seconds. You have to tell it your age, and it can easily tell you if you are likely in a pre-diabetic state. Seems to me we ought to have them at every polling booth, every pharmacy, every clinic, every place people gather simply as a public health measure.
Question: How is it you came to have to an entire chapter devoted to semen?
Answer: I did it! I admit it! I didn’t envision it originally, but it suddenly became obvious to me that there was a natural grouping of provocative findings and anecdotes. I think the most important topic I talk about in what has become known as “the semen chapter” is the new semen-based test for prostate cancers. Right now, 40% of men will test positive for prostate cancer by age forty. And it gets worse over time. With our current method of diagnosis—a notoriously unpleasant physical exam and a blood test to check PSA levels—we get 75% false positives.
Following this diagnosis, there are needle biopsies—even if you are falsely positive—and this can proceed to full-on surgery. The nerves of the prostate are not something we want to fool around with; the downside can be problems in the bedroom, if I may be sort of direct! This new semen-based test is in clinical studies now, and it’s not only accurate, it can also detect the difference between the slow-growing variety of the prostate cancer and the wildly aggressive type.
Don’t forget that two years ago in the United States, 230,000 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer and 30,000 men died from it. That’s serious by any measure. We want to find the 30,000 men with the aggressive form of prostate cancer much earlier and much more accurately than we have before, and we want to leave the hundreds of thousands of men with false positives alone. But truly, there’s much more than this in the semen chapter. There’s the business of the gorilla sperm, but you’ve got to read the book to learn about that!
Question: If Steve Jobs were the CEO of a biotech company, what would it produce?
Answer: Dividends—only kidding! Apple isn’t known for spewing out the dividends, but you have to believe with Steve Jobs at the helm (1) it would be a wildly innovative take at how to look biotech, and (2) it would change how everyone looks at things, whether they are buying the product he’s selling or not. We’ve already talked about the information explosion which is going on in biotech. Why couldn’t your iPod/iPhone hold your iDNA, your iGenes and your iChromosomes. The iCEO himself has got to be thinking about all this. You just have to wonder: What’s he thinking?
Question: How do people stay motivated in the biotech business when it takes a decade to even begin to know if you have something?
Answer: The scientists I have met in the biotech arena are absolutely gripped by the whole concept of biotech right down to the core of their beings. It’s the audacious puzzle of it all, which just might be solvable. It’s the idea that they can make such a difference to individuals, to their families, and to the human race. I have never encountered such people and you see them everywhere. Yes, they inch forward, sometimes they leap forward, and then slide back, or are proven to be barking up the wrong scientific tree.
Also, don’t be fooled by the idea that “it takes a decade to even begin to know if you have something.” Actually, you learn a lot along the way, and scientists take those things and apply them to other challenges. Dr. Ananda Chakraberty received the first life science patent for his “super-bacteria” which he designed to “eat up” oil spills and convert them to something innocuously organic. Now he’s using all his experience and wisdom with bacteria to attack brain cancer. Dr. Joshua Boger, the president and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, took the scientific methodology he and his firm developed to address HIV/AIDS and converted it to attempt to meet the Hepatitis C challenge.
It’s true that the big wins take a long time. But the little wins? Nearly every day.