… in the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes that the most charitable description of what’s been going on at the clubby University of Minnesota medical school would be “bizarre.”
Saturday, July 31, 2010
Craig Venter Answers Der Spiegel Questions
Selections from Der Spiegel:
[This is only a selection, the whole interview is well worth reading.]
SPIEGEL: Mr. Venter, when the elite among gene researchers undertook the decoding of the human genome, you were their greatest enemy. They called you "Frankenstein," "blood sucker," "Darth Venter" and even "asshole." Why do you attract so much hostility?
Venter: Well, nobody likes to be beaten -- by superior intelligence, planning and technology. That gets people upset.
SPIEGEL: Wasn't it more the case that your opponents were afraid that you, as a profit-oriented entrepreneur, would make the human genome your own private property?
Venter: That is totally absurd; and you know it. Initially, Francis Collins and the other people on the Human Genome Project claimed that my methods would never work. When they started to realize that they were wrong, they began personal attacks against me and made up these things about the ownership of the genome. It was all absurd.
SPIEGEL: Was the importance of gene patents, which fueled the dispute, exaggerated?
Venter: First of all, nobody has made any serious money off patents on human genes except patent attorneys. Second, I do not hold any patents on human genes. You can do a patent search. Then you can convince yourself.
SPIEGEL: It appeared at the time that you had agreed to be undecided. Do you now view yourself as the winner of the race?
Venter: I don't think it really matters.
SPIEGEL: The New York Times later declared the public Human Genome Project to be the victor. Can you really claim that you don't care?
Venter: Oh, the New York Times! How do you define the "winner" in this case? What is decisive is that it is our data that is in the databases -- not the data the consortium put together back then.
SPIEGEL: The genome project has been called the Manhattan Project or Moon Landing of its era. It has also been said that knowledge of the genes will change the future of humanity and become a "main driver of the world economy."
Venter: Who said that? I didn't. That was the people at the consortium.
SPIEGEL: You're wrong. You made all those statements in an interview with DER SPIEGEL in 1998.
Venter: Really? Those are Francis Collins' lines. So I may have said that that's how he describes it. I, on the other hand, have always said, "This is a race from the starting line to the finish."
SPIEGEL: So the significance of the genome isn't so great after all?
Venter: Not at all. I can tell you from my own experience. I put my own genome on the Internet. People had the notion this was the scariest thing out there. But what happened? Nothing.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has said he doesn't want to know which variant of the so-called ApoE gene he has -- it could say something about his risk for developing Alzheimer's, and he's afraid of that …
Venter: That was silliness. At that age? Watson is over 80.
SPIEGEL: The decoding of your personal genome has so far revealed little more than the fact that your ear wax tends to be moist.
Venter: That's what you say. And what else have I learned from my genome? Very little. We couldn't even be certain from my genome what my eye color was. Isn't that sad? Everyone was looking for miracle 'yes/no' answers in the genome. "Yes, you'll have cancer." Or "No, you won't have cancer." But that's just not the way it is.
SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?
Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.
SPIEGEL: Why is it taking so long for the results of genome research to be applied in medicine?
Venter: Because we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.
SPIEGEL: There are hundreds of hereditary diseases that can be traced to defects in individual genes. You can determine a lot more than just probabilities through them. But that still hasn't led to a flood of new treatments.
Venter: There were false expectations. Take Ataxia telangiectasia, for example, a horrible disease. The nervous system degenerates, and people who have it often die in their early teens. The cause is a defect in a single gene, but it is a developmental gene. If your body is built in the wrong way, then you can't just take a magic pill to rebuild it. If your brain is wired wrong, then it is wired wrong.
SPIEGEL: But the keys are really located in the dark?
Venter: Exactly. Why did people think there were so many human genes? It's because they thought there was going to be one gene for each human trait. And if you want to cure greed, you change the greed gene, right? Or the envy gene, which is probably far more dangerous. But it turns out that we're pretty complex. If you want to find out why someone gets Alzheimer's or cancer, then it is not enough to look at one gene. To do so, we have to have the whole picture. It's like saying you want to explore Valencia and the only thing you can see is this table. You see a little rust, but that tells you nothing about Valencia other than that the air is maybe salty. That's where we are with the genome. We know nothing.
SPIEGEL: Do you think there will be a time when you can extract all this information to yield real medical results?
Venter: For that to happen we need a lot more information: Information about your body's chemistry, your physiology, your complete medical history, your brain and your entire life. We would need to do that a million times on different people and correlate that data with their genetic information.
SPIEGEL: Will that lead in the end to the kind of personalized medicine that genetic researchers have always touted? Each person would get his or her own personal treatment that is tailored precisely to that person's genetic make-up?
Venter: That was another one of these silly naïve notions that was out there. It's not, 'Oh, we know your genome, we're going to make this drug for you.' That will never happen. It is more important that you use the information in the genome about your personal risks and reduce them through intelligent behavior.
SPIEGEL: Many fear what might happen if humans craft new life forms. They repeatedly say that you are playing God …
Venter: Yes, and I find them frightening. I can read your genome, you know? Nobody's been able to do that in history before. But that is not about God-like powers, it's about scientific power. The real problem is that the understanding of science in our society is so shallow. In the future, if we want to have enough water, enough food and enough energy without totally destroying our planet, then we will have to be dependent on good science.
SPIEGEL: Some scientist don't rule out a belief in God. Francis Collins, for example …
Venter: … That's his issue to reconcile, not mine. For me, it's either faith or science - you can't have both.
SPIEGEL: So you don't consider Collins to be a true scientist?
Venter: Let's just say he's a government administrator.
SPIEGEL: How long will it be until the life forms you have created start producing fuel for our cars?
Venter: Not only gasoline. Plastic, asphalt, heating oil: Everything that we make from oil will at some point be made by bacteria or other cells. Whether that is in five, 10 or 20 years is unclear. Why don't we have fuel now other than alcohol from microbes? It's because nothing evolved that can produce great amounts of biofuel out of CO2. That's why we have to make it.
SPIEGEL: It took eight years from the time the first bacterial genome was decoded until the human genome was completed. How much time will elapse between the creation of the first synthetic bacteria and the creation of the first synthetic human?
Venter: There is currently no reason for us to synthesize human cells. I am, for example, a fan of the work that was done a short time ago that led to the decoding of the Neanderthal genome. But we don't need any more Neanderthals on the planet, right? We already have enough of them.