Author Archives: genotopia

About genotopia

Professor at Johns Hopkins University in History of Medicine, with joint appointment in History of Science & Technology. Biomedicine and especially genetic medicine are among the most important and powerful cultural forces in our world today. This blog explores them from a historical and sometimes satirical point of view. My targets are hype, false promises, and hypocrisy, rather than any particular person or institution. Historical origins, cultural context, and humor are all ways of gaining a bit of perspective on the breathless world of biomedicine. Reflection and laughter can only help.

Eugenics Round-up

Some eugenics news items of interest…

In Dissertation Reviews, Alison Bateman-House reviews Bradley Hart’s dissertation (Cambridge, 2011; Richard Evans, advisor) on eugenics in Britain, the U.S., and Germany begs the musical question, “Really? Another dissertation on American, German, and British eugenics? Not clear what’s new here, other than casting the oldest comparison in the history of eugenics in the trendy language of things like “transnational context.” Haven’t read it yet myself, but I am curious about the argument of chapter 2 that of the three nations, only in the US was the eugenics program not derailed by WWI. Is Hart a Rassenhygiene-denier?

If you or someone you love was sterilized under North Carolina’s 1959 “Jolly Bill,” which sought to solve the problem of out-of-wedlock births by sterilization, you have until the end of June to file for compensation under the class-action suit. The Tarheels are sorry, but although the eugenicists were tried, their patience is too. Jolly indeed.

I knew that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist with some ugly views on race, but I didn’t know that conservatives think I don’t know that. Another thing I didn’t know is that everyone in the Progressive era was racist. Gee, you learn the most interesting facts on teh interwebs! Really, though, can we be a little more careful with our language? It’s one thing to caution against judging historical actors in terms of present-day ethics; it’s another to assert that “Literally everything we have here [in the U.S.] is a result of the less douchebaggy moments of racists.” Because if that’s true, then everything we have here is also a result of the less douchebaggy moments of sexists. Sanger was criticized at the time for her views on race. We can admire Sanger’s courage on sex and gender while criticizing her on race. That’s okay: this is history, not a fairy tale.

Huh. Apparently, the new fad in Hollywood is transhumanism. The Center for Genetics and Society reviews Transcendence, a new film that  addresses issues such as regenerative and synthetic biology, consciousness uploads, and other sci-fi fantasies. Curious about the film–okay, I guess “film” is stretching it–even if it is trashy. Especially if it’s trashy, actually. I’m still uncomfortably on the fence about the linking of creepy things like prenatal genetic diagnosis and eugenics to good clean fun like making yourself into a cat or a lizard. But into the breach we go, it seems. New rule: When Johnny Depp does it, it’s no longer edgy.

cat man %2004 Eugenics Round up

Good clean fun.

 

DNA Day Hype

Happy DNA Day everyone. On this date in 1953, Nature published four articles on the structure of DNA, including the 800-word, data-free masterpiece by Watson and Crick—but also the work of Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, and Maurice Wilkins that did actually have data, and without which the first Watson and Crick paper would have been handwaving fluff. The Watson-Crick paper is a rightful classic of the scientific literature, but it’s too easy to forget those who provided the evidence to back them up.

portrait mrc 900w DNA Day Hype

The MRC Biophysics Unit in 1951, from Paulingblog. Wilkins is scrunched up at the far left. Gosling is on his feet straining his lower back at the right.

To celebrate, the genetic testing company 23andMe posted a DNA Day infographic that is a marvelous inadvertent evidence of genetic oversell. That’s the best kind, because it unself-consciously undermines its own claims.

rosalind franklin DNA Day Hype

An unusual image of Franklin at the microscope, and the familiar portrait, from fantagabriele.blogspot.com.

These claims are about health. Last year, the company was ordered to stop marketing their genomic testing service as a health service and it agreed to stop selling it altogether. It would henceforth focus on the genealogy side of their service. They are evidently sneaking back in, though, with ads—sorry, “infographics”; so much more documentary-like than “advertisements”— like this one.

Ninety-one percent of Americans, it trumpets in giant type at the top of the ad, “correctly believe that knowing their genetic information can be helpful in managing their health.” On one level, Well, duh. Everyone knows that some diseases run in families: you don’t have to have a high level of genetic literacy to be aware that knowing whether your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and aunts have had breast cancer is a pretty useful little medical tidbit. The statement is worded so vaguely as to be meaningless. The remaining nine percent probably have some strongly hereditary learning disability that keeps them from correctly knowing how to feed themselves.

On a second level, though, I’d like to know what percentage of Americans incorrectly believe that knowing their genetic information can be helpful in managing their health. What percentage, for example, think that having one of the BRCA risk-factor alleles means they are going to get breast cancer unless they have a mastectomy? What percentage believe that a 300% increase in risk for an extremely rare disease—from one in 3 million, say, to one in a million—is cause for alarm? What percentage think that the association of a single nucleotide polymorphism with a genetic disease means that biomedicine has the cause—let alone a cure—for that disease? What percentage of Americans, in short, have no understanding of probability, pleiotropy, penetrance, or gene–environment interaction, and yet read ads from companies such as 23andMe and think, “Yee-haw! I can learn what diseases I’m going to get, and which ones not, just by spitting in a cup!”

Watson Crick in office DNA Day Hype

The dynamic duo. From The Sandwalk.

The infomercial continues downward, with more statistics: smaller numbers in smaller type. Thirty-one percent know that genetic testing can “show their body’s ability” to metabolize caffeine, etc. At the bottom, though, the numbers get large again. “People still need a refresher on the basics of genetics,” they say. Forty-nine percent of women “believe their sex chromosome is XY.” Their sex chromosome is XY? What percentage of genetic testing companies employ staffers who can write simply and accurately about genetics? Another statistic: forty-one percent don’t realize DNA is organized into chromosomes.

Finally, in tiny print at the very bottom, they tell us that the survey was conducted on 1000 “nationally representative Americans” by an “independent research firm, Kelton.” Kelton Global is a marketing firm that specializes in repositioning companies that have lost market share or want to break into new markets. Their motto is “helping brands navigate change.” They take surveys, track metrics, re-brand companies, and so forth. Their niche is using numbers to persuade and making statistics say what their clients want them to say.

Let’s make a few postulates for the sake of argument. Let’s say that this is a real sample, designed seriously by people who understand statistics. Let’s say the questions were worded better than this and that those questioned understood what they were being asked. Let’s assume the ad was just badly written. It may be that these are totally unjustified, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for just a moment.

If their numbers are in fact meaningful, what they show is that people are buying the hype about genetic testing without understanding it. How happy should we be that people who don’t know what a chromosome is nevertheless believe that genetic testing can tell them about their health? We’re not talking about informed decision making about subtle and complex data; we’re talking drinking the Kool-Aid. What this ad says, most of all, is that even though officially 23andMe is out of the health-claim game, they are still very interested.

“Recombinant Gold” teaser

Had a request for a teaser of my recent review of Nic Rasmussen’s Gene Jockeys from Nature (April 10). If you want the whole thing, log in to Nature or shoot me an email.

  In 1969, the molecular biologist Gunther Stent published one of the most spectacularly inaccurate predictions in the history of modern science. In The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress (Natural History Press), he stated his belief that molecular genetics — which had only really been a science for 15 years — had peaked. The “golden age,” he wrote, would be one of modest discovery and waning public interest in science. That year, Jonathan Beckwith isolated the first gene. In 1970, Hamilton Smith found the first site-specific restriction enzyme, which his colleague Daniel Nathans developed into a tool for cutting and pasting DNA. Then, in 1972, Paul Berg spliced a bacterial gene into a virus. With the ability to engineer genes, molecular genetics began in earnest. Never mind the Age of Aquarius; this was the age of recombinant DNA.

In Gene Jockeys, the biologist and science historian Nicolas Rasmussen delicately unravels the tangled fibres of discovery, entrepreneurship and lab life in the first decades of genetic engineering.

DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier Life

Tired? Forgetful? Feeling old before your time? Forgetful? Maybe it’s your DNA—or lack of it.

DNA-based alternative medicine is one of the fastest growing health fields today. Combining the marketing strengths of science, health, and religion, it’s no wonder that researchers are stocking the shelves and lining their pockets with a variety of DNA supplements and diagnostics. Here are some of the most exciting products and findings.

Puritans Pride DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeA diet rich in DNA—and its molecular cousin, RNA—is correlated with improved performance across a wide range of activities, both physical and mental, and could help stave off the effects of aging. Results of a bold new study from Kashkow University’s School of DNA and Medicine, expected to begin next year, were announced yesterday. They have been called a “breakthrough” and a “game-changer” by some of the leading scientists on the proposed study.

Dr. Cyrus Tosine, a lead researcher on the study, said that supplemental DNA and RNA could be of particular benefit to patients suffering from low energy, poor muscular strength and stamina, pain and stiffness in the joints, forgetfulness, and an inability to concen

The general result should come as no surprise, Tosine says. “DNA and RNA operate at the core of life,” he notes. “Supplemental RNA and DNA promote cellular integrity.” Independent research does confirm that the absence of RNA and DNA negatively affects cells’ ability to survive, which could be considered a form of integrity. Further, Tosine pointed out, nucleic acid activity is halted by cell death. “And when your cells die, you die,” he observed. DNA, he concludes, is related to aging. “QED.”

The research uses a sophisticated new analytical technique called “meta-meta-analysis,” which pools the results of many studies that pool the results of many studies. This gives the method such great statistical power that it can find a correlation between any two variables. Thus, it is already possible to say with confidence that DNA intake is positively correlated with all major indicators of health—and negatively correlated with a variety of diseases.

The research was hailed by the plastic surgeon Dr. Vincent C. Giampapa, M.D., F.A.C.S., one of the most prominent members of this exciting new field. “DNA is our life source,” he confirmed.
Recognizing a potential market in anxious new mothers and covering both the scientific and religious bases, one company is developing a line of infant probiotics called “DNA Miracles.” Their advantage, she says, is that “with DNA Miracles Probiotics Extra, you can rest easy knowing that you’re providing your child one of the most complete children’s probiotic and prebiotic formulas on the market today.”

Magnum DNA DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeAthletes, too, are recognizing the benefits of upping their intake of what double helix co-discoverer Francis Crick called the “secret of life.” DNA is being mixed with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—some of the building blocks of protein—to create potent muscle-building supplements. An Australian company offers a patented “coded DNA amino acid BCAA,” which contains “the perfect coded DNA amino acid sequence.” The sequence, of course, is not only proprietary but classified, lest it fall into the hands of an evil mastermind determined to clone a race of LeBron Jameses crossed with Olga Korbuts.
DNA Repair Cream DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier Life

Other work centers on DNA repair, a well-established field of science. Dr. Giampapa, M.D., F.A.C.S., is author of over 700 studies showing the benefits of improving DNA with his patent formulas. “Just improving a small percentage of our total DNA can make a major difference in the quality of our health, well being and longevity.” Dr. Giampapa, M.D., F.A.C.S. says. Science is still learning how small a percentage can make a major difference, and what in the name of Watson and Crick “improving” your DNA could mean.

Where does it come from?

Not all DNA is created equal. Some of the highest quality DNA is extracted from freeze-dried lamb placenta, say some experts. Dr. Rad Bitchen, of Woohoo Pharmaceuticals, explains: “Studies have supported that sheep placenta is one of the richest source of nutrients.” Two capsules of their DNA/RNA supplement contain over five miles of nucleic acid—500 times the recommended daily allowance, set last week by Bitchen himself.

wohoo lamb placenta dna e1396366055653 DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeAnimal rights’ groups, however, have protested the freeze-drying of lambs. A spokesorganism for PETNA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Nucleic Acids) notes that even in a wool coat, the young ovines must get the shivers during the process.

PETNA and others promote the use of “cruelty-free” DNA. Woohoo’s DNA also contains “marine protein,” which, Bitchen insists, is “like wicked delicious.” He emphasizes that no Marines are harmed in his process. Another company, Anathema Nucleoceuticals, makes a line of DNA-based condiments. Their biggest seller is Guano Butter, made from bat guano and olive oil. Anathema’s literature says it is delicious on whole grain toast or Ak-Mak crackers. Yet some object to DNA collected from any higher animals.

“No nuclear membrane, no problem,” says Ariadne Fishnet, of Portland, Oregon. Fishnet is a freelance farmer of sustainable E. coli, a bacterium normally found in the human gut. Extracting the DNA from bacteria is completely painless, she says, even though it eviscerates the organism. “At first we used only wild-caught bacteria, because that sounded better. But it turned out to be economically unpractical, as well as kind of gross. We have a new model of sustainable bacteria farming. All our bacteria are free-range, non-GMO, and antibiotic-free.”

Skeptics

Swanson RNA DNA DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeNevertheless, not everyone is convinced of the value of megadoses of DNA. Dr. Ron Swanson, of the University of California at Boulder, believes that prokaryotic nucleic acid is at best worthless and perhaps damaging. “The highest quality DNA comes from steak and cigars,” he says. Further, he continues, it is not the quantity but the “balance” between DNA and RNA that provides the key to health. “Our studies show that RNA/DNA imbalance is the root cause of a variety of symptoms,” he said. “If you feel fatigue, weakness, muscle and joint stiffness, memory loss, or lack of ability to concentrate, restoring the correct balance has been shown absolutely equivocally to sometimes help stuff,” he said.

Drs. Kathleen, Elaine, and Mary, of the Natural Healthcare Ministries Research Center and Salon in Credulity, Wisconsin, believe that massive doses of DNA and RNA constitute a “one size fits all” approach that is out of harmony with what makes us all special. DNA medicine should be personalized, “Because we’re all people,” noted Mary. “Except for the sheep,” Elaine chimed in. “Yea but they’re frozen,” Mary replied. “Shut up,” snapped Elaine.

Kathleen continued, “Homeopathic energy DNA testing is based on the principle that everything in nature, even substances that do not move, gives off energy as a vibration.” Any foreign substance entering the body, she said, may have an irritating effect on the body, “because of the vibrations.” Their method, Sound Therapy On Nucleic acid Energy Depletion (STONED), is to “ test this energy (your DNA) by testing your hair.” They then correct the vibrations using a variety of cellular actualization techniques. They also offer styling and manicures, half off on Tuesday mornings.

In spite—or perhaps because— of its controversial nature, DNA medicine is clearly on the rise. All experts agree on one point: everyone should limit their intake of food that contains no DNA. Examples include processed sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, lard, and Chicken McNuggets.

 

 

 

Three-parent babies and eugenics

My feed is full of stories about “three-parent babies” and whether they are a eugenic threat. Predictably, Art Caplan, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of bioethics, features prominently. A report on CNN quotes him heavily and he wrote an op-ed that was picked up by several news outlets. Caplan, more diplomatic than nuanced, says the technique could be scary if used to create super-babies, but that currently it is a legitimate, strictly therapeutic medical procedure. This middle ground strikes the right chord of concern while basically supporting the biomedical enterprise. And it misses the point.

The procedure combines “traditional” in vitro fertilization with a technique that substitutes mitochondria from one egg into another. Mitochondria, whose role in the cell, crudely, is to provide the energy to carry out metabolic and other processes, have their own little genomes, and mutations in their DNA can lead to a variety of diseases, including various respiratory conditions and muscular dystrophy. The scenario runs something like this: you are a woman who wants to get pregnant. You spit in a cup and get your genome results, and they reveal the presence of mutations in your mitochondria that lead to disease. You go through regular IVF—with one extra step: after your eggs are extracted, their mitochondria are swapped out with “normal” mitochondria from another donor egg. Thus, the eggs used are chimaeras, with your nuclear genome and the other donor’s mitochondria. Those eggs are then fertilized with the sperm of your partner (or the male of your choice), implanted in your womb, and nine months later, out pops little Junior.

Is this eugenics? Depends on your definition. Susan Solomon, Director of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, says no. She was quoted in the CNN piece saying,

“There is no genetic engineering. It isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a way to allow these families to have healthy children…What we’re doing is, without at all changing the DNA of the mother, just allowing it to grow in an environment that isn’t sick.”

eugenics tree 1921 Three parent babies and eugenics

“Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution”

The eugenic definition I prefer is “the self-direction of human evolution.” I didn’t make this up: I stole it from the slogan of the 1922 Eugenics Congress. It was coined by what Dan Kevles would call “mainline” eugenicists of the Progressive era and it applies well to earlier, pre-Mendelian eugenicists, later, postwar “reform” eugenicists, and quite a bit of medical genetics since the middle of the twentieth century. With all due respect to Dr. Solomon, the “three-parent baby” is  most certainly genetic engineering—it just modifies “cassettes” of genes, if you will, rather than tweaking single genes or nucleotides. It is exactly as eugenic as going through conventional IVF and selecting the traits you want in your offspring.

Cue the theme music from GATTACA.

gattaca still ethan hawke Three parent babies and eugenicsShould we be concerned? Absolutely. Should we condemn the procedure? Not unless we wish to be hypocrites. It is on one level a preventive medical treatment like any other and banning it would deny certain people—admittedly, all of them wealthy enough to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to get pregnant—access to available healthcare. But yes, it certainly is a slippery slope. There simply is no defensible way to draw a hard, bright line between medicine and eugenics. It provides a spectrum, from preventing disease to maximizing health to genetic enhancement. This ambiguity is in the nature of genetic medicine. We are heading down this path and simply digging in our heels will not be productive.

Our genetic future is going to involve learning to keep our footing on some pretty slick hillsides. The only viable way I see to keep techniques such as this from turning into a GATTACA-like way to “accidentally” create a genetically stratified society (where the rich can design their own babies while the poor have genetically impoverished “love children”) is to decide that it is morally wrong to do so.

Science cannot provide a guide to morality any more than it can provide an answer to the question of whether or not there is a god. Some valid questions are just not scientific. The danger, then, is not the application of this or any other specific biomedical technique. It is the false and dangerous belief that science alone can be a guide to civil society. The further science takes us, the more we need the humanities to deepen our understanding of where we are headed.

 

A Piece of DNA – Olivia Judson

Recommended reading:

Lovely essay from Olivia Judson on the cytosine she came across while sorting through her father’s possessions–part of the original Watson & Crick model that Horace somehow got his hands on, presumably through Crick. I remember hearing from Horace about that cytosine, though I never chanced to see it.

With that model, in a way, DNA became real. It acquired form humans could perceive. It gained a legible structure, it became an image. It took on an identity, on the way to becoming an expression of our own identity.

A Piece of DNA – NYTimes.com.