A Curious Incident

Posted by Pete Shanks June 30, 2010
Biopolitical Times
Sherlock Holmes

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

On June 26, 2000, with enormous hoopla featuring both President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair, the first draft of the Human Genome Project (HGP) was announced. It was global front-page news. There were certainly some caveats but overall the mood projected was one of tremendous optimism. We can read the Book of Life! Cures are around the corner!

Ten years later? We're still waiting. Which is probably why the anniversary slid past with so few of the principals wishing to draw our attention.

The New York Times published a pair of skeptical articles, one by Nicholas Wade and another by Andrew Pollack, noting that the HGP has produced "few new cures" (if indeed any) and "few new drugs" (well, none, yet). They were followed with an editorial that provoked some push-back from senior scientists, who begged for patience: "Scientific discoveries have always been separated from their clinical contributions, not by 10 years, but usually by 25 or more."

Nature did produce a Special (preemptively, at the end of March) on The Human Genome at Ten, aptly summarized in Wired's headline: 10 Years on, 'The Genome Revolution Is Only Just Beginning'. The Economist also produced a Special Report (online on many pages; or you can buy a pdf for $4.95) that essentially admits the obvious lack of stunning medical success but frames it in optimism about the future:

"One by one, however, these obstacles are falling away. As they do so, the science of biology is being transformed. It seems quite likely that future historians of science will divide biology into the pre- and post-genomic eras."

That may yet be true. And, to be fair, the worst of the hype in 2000 came from politicians, naive commentators, and a few scientists who may have been either giddy with achievement or just hungry for grant money. There were skeptical articles, there were concerns about abuse (Art Caplan deserves credit), and inevitably there was the irrepressible Craig Venter, who was quoted in the New Yorker as saying: "My view of biology is 'We don't know shit.'" (He might now regret having been quite so forthright, if only because it must make it harder to raise capital.)

Science, however, does continue, even as the hype blows away. A final quote from the great detective:

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: