The big headline from the OVP Tech Summit last week came when UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska called on everyone to quit being so smug, and get serious about turning Seattle into a major league innovation cluster. But later that day, I was lucky to be the only journalist in the room, along with a couple dozen VCs and entrepreneurs, for a fascinating 90-minute conversation on how biology is going digital and what it means for society. Two world-class biologists, Leroy Hood and Irv Weissman, weighed in on the profound questions this technology raises for science, medicine, politics, and, yes, religion.
OVP managing director Carl Weissman, son of the above-mentioned Stanford University stem cell researcher, got the ball rolling. He asked about when full human genomes will be sequenced for as little as $1,000, and for the participants to comment on the implications. Hood, a pioneer in the field of high-speed gene sequencing, said he sees the $1,000 genome coming within five years—and that it could cause a lot of trouble if not handled correctly.
If the goal is to gain a far deeper understanding of what causes diseases, and what makes us human, then simply having cheap genome sequencing doesn’t necessarily mean scientists will get the answers they need, the researchers said. There’s a risk that people could put too much weight on the idea that genes determine who we are, rather than serve as one important piece of the puzzle in combination with environmental factors, Hood said. Scientists will face a huge challenge of trying to integrate genetic data with information on a person’s surrounding environment, to understand how it all adds up to the person’s current condition, or phenotype, he said.
It sounded like a replay of the old debate about nature versus nurture, which most scientists acknowledge is really all about a complex interplay of the two factors.
“One danger is in if we don’t integrate the two data sets,” Hood said. “The genome is one big piece of data, but there are other big pieces. Integrating them all is essential.” He added that this is a staggeringly complicated notion, because genome sequencing, with 3 billion DNA data points on every human, already creates a limited amount of valuable data amid a sea of noise.
“How do you do experiments that put together genotype and environment to equal phenotype?” Hood asked rhetorically. Funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health aren’t really set up to tackle the kind of experiments to answer these kind of questions, because they embrace what Hood calls “small science”-the sort of incremental advances, building on the work of peers, that tends to get published in top journals. The pharmaceutical industry won’t do it either, “because they invest in things that run a year or two out at most,” Hood said.
Still, with technology marching forward and making the $1,000 genome a possibility, Carl Weissman wanted to know what sort of experiments this will enable in the lab and how it will change scientists’ jobs.
The $1,000 genome will probably lead to a bigger opportunity to do experiments on the genetic profiles of people with common neurodegenerative diseases linked to multiple genes being out of whack instead of just one, Irv Weissman said. Stem cells grown in a lab dish … Next Page »