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New Challenge to the Biotech Industry

Written by on Monday, July 2nd, 2007 Print This Post Print This Post

In case you missed it, The New York Times ran an interesting story yesterday: "A Challenge to Gene Theory, A Tougher Look At Biotech."

The New York Times article stated:

Last month, a consortium of scientists published findings that challenge the traditional view of how genes function. The exhaustive four-year effort was organized by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute and carried out by 35 groups from 80 organizations around the world. To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might not be a “tidy collection of independent genes” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. According to the institute, these findings will challenge scientists “to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do” . . . .

With that link now in place, the report is likely to have repercussions far beyond the laboratory. The presumption that genes operate independently has been institutionalized since 1976, when the first biotech company was founded. In fact, it is the economic and regulatory foundation on which the entire biotechnology industry is built.

The article goes on to state the following:

Evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today’s commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals.

“The real worry for us has always been that the commercial agenda for biotech may be premature, based on what we have long known was an incomplete understanding of genetics,” said Professor Heinemann, who writes and teaches extensively on biosafety issues.

“Because gene patents and the genetic engineering process itself are both defined in terms of genes acting independently,” he said, “regulators may be unaware of the potential impacts arising from these network effects.”

Needless to say, the article was provocative.  Does this new finding that scientists don’t know quite as much as they thought they did really shake the foundations of biotechnology?  Does this now mean that biotech commercialization is actually putting the public at risk?

With all due respect to The New York Times, I can’t help but thing that this is "much ado about nothing."  The biotech industry may have some new challenges to face, but I hardly think that news of this research is going to have a significant impact on the industry.  So, scientists decide that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did–how does that change all the discoveries and innovation that have already come out of the industry?  Do these new findings really erase those achievements?  Of course not.

The New York Times pointed to a possible effect on previously granted gene patents as one possible effect of these findings.  While it is plausible to think that gene patents could be affected by this new research, I think it is a stretch to extend the reach of those findings much further.  But apparently everyone does not share that view–certainly not The New York Times.  It will be interesting to watch and see how this story unfolds in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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