26 May 2012

Finally GETting it: the 2012 GET (Genomes, Environments and Traits) Conference, Boston, 25 April 2012

As I mentioned in one of my very first blog posts, I am participating in the Personal Genome Project led by Dr. George Church of Harvard. (Read that post here to get a quick overview of the project.) For the past couple of years, they have had a one-day conference (Genomes, Environments, Traits, or GET) at Harvard Medical School to discuss progress as well as host presentations on related themes and trends. Participants in the study are invited to attend free of charge, so I stopped by to enjoy some very interesting lectures on a wide range of topics, as well as to get a full update on the progress of the project.

And OK, I admit it: I also wanted to meet Dr. Church.* I have always found the idea of ‘celebrity’ rather horrifying. With the exception of a book-signing, I wouldn’t be caught dead asking someone for an autograph, and I firmly reject the idea that just because someone (e.g. actors) is in the limelight, s/he is somehow worthy of our affection and praise. And I believe that if you admire someone for his or her convictions or policies or work, then you should admire the product (i.e. ideas), not the person (who is as fallible as you). In other words, I don’t really do hero-worship, and I don’t have any ‘rock stars’. But Dr. Church is as close as I will ever come to having a hero. His audacious project to sequence 100,000 genomes has the potential to have a greater impact than any other single scientific undertaking in medical history. I realize this doesn’t make him as fame-worthy as, say, an accomplished person like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, but it’s good enough for me.

For me, the most interesting part of the day was the update on the project itself. The whole team was there, each updating on his or her area of responsibility (bioethics, legal, operations, etc.). They then fielded questions from the group of us there. The question I wanted to ask (but didn’t have to because apparently everyone was thinking it and someone else posed it first) was, isn’t the project terribly skewed towards a certain subset of the population? First there’s education and IQ: since they aren’t aggressively advertising it yet, they are getting mostly people who have a higher educational level; and since they require everyone to pass a test on the basics of genetics, risk and privacy issues at stake, it will also skew towards the more intelligent. Also, looking around the room, I saw a majority male and majority white audience (though admittedly I don’t know for sure how representative that was of the overall participant pool). Add to that the fact that one must be an American citizen to participate and it does seem a little imbalanced. There really wasn’t much of an answer for that. For the educational/IQ and American citizen issues, those are all related to legal/informed consent/privacy requirements, so they can’t really budge there for now. As for ethnicity and sex, presumably at some point they will be making a wider push for more participants and attempt to balance things then.

And that brings me to the next thing I noticed: despite the fact it’s been up and running for a few years now, it is still very early days, so patience is the key word here. There’s so much more to it than simply soliciting, receiving and processing DNA. Remember, nothing like this has ever been attempted before, so there is a very steep learning curve here: how best to collect and process so many samples, and with the best maintenance of the samples; even deciding WHAT to sample, since this is also about environment and about getting as wide a spectrum of data as possible; how to handle the interface with participants; all the legal and privacy issues; how best to process all the data to ensure it’s actually turned into something meaningful. The list goes on and on.

As for the numbers, here’s where it stands right now: there are about 2,000 of us in the project. In the first five years of the project, they sequenced 10 genomes (starting with Church’s, who led by example and released all his data); now they are up to about that many per month. The market cost for the process is down to around USD 4-5k, which is already half as much as last time I checked a year or two ago; and the price will continue to plummet as the process is improved and streamlined (which is an important secondary goal of the project).

Besides the project update, there were many fascinating presentations on other subjects, from a CEO who has the goal of achieving the 100-dollar genome, to an incredible project that is achieving the ultimate biomimickry: creating actual miniature bio-synthetic organs on which to do drug trials to ensure greater accuracy and reliability of results (not to mention saving a lot of rats!). That latter one was amazing and the implications for drug research are profound. Take for example asthma drug research. Progress in this area has been (literally painfully) slow. One of the main reasons? Animals simply don’t mimic the human version of asthma very well, so researchers often go down dead-end paths, wasting a lot of time and research money along the way. But imagine growing a biosynthetic lung and testing drugs on them directly. The researcher, Dr. Geraldine Hamilton, showed some pictures of some of the actual organs they had created. Astounding accomplishment both from a technical point of view and in light of its staggering implications.

So what does the future of genetics hold for us? The possibilities are practically endless. As Dr. Church said, we all have some ‘superpower’ in our genes (large or small, whether we are aware of it or not). This can be anything from harder-than-average bones to HIV-resistance. Now imagine identifying thousands of such ‘superpowers’ through large-scale genomic research. Then imagine leveraging that knowledge of individual genes to create therapies for others who lack that particular ‘superpower’. You don’t need much of an imagination to realize that the implications for the future and well-being of humanity are profound.

The future is a wild place, folks. Hold on.

*For the record, I did get to meet him and speak with him for a few minutes, and was quite proud of myself for not gushing overly much. I think I might even have been relatively coherent.

14 May 2012

Art and Science: Whose Business Are They?

About twenty years ago, my (now ex-)wife’s brother told me a story I never forgot, because it resonated so strongly with me. (I can’t recall now if the experience happened to him or if he was relaying something that happened to someone else, but for our purposes here, it doesn't really matter.) He was in Paris on holiday and was visiting the Louvre. As he filed past the Mona Lisa, he overheard the following exchange between an American married couple:

Wife: Well, honey, what do you think?

Husband: What can I say about art? I’m an engineer.

To me, a society in which its engineers do not feel entitled to an opinion about art, is a society in decline. To say that you cannot/should not have an opinion about art because you are not an artist, is like saying you can’t have an opinion about eating because you are not a chef.  Art is an essential human function, one that springs from the core of our humanity.

The same is true about the human yearning to understand the world, as expressed in our pursuit of science and exploration. Besides the fact that I recently saw this former brother-in-law*, I have also been thinking about this story of his because someone asked me why I had blogged about my visit to the Space Symposium, and specifically why I was so interested in the physics of it all. The underlying question seemed to be, “You’re an executive manager with an education in languages and business….what makes you feel qualified to question people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Lisa Randall?” My answer is two-fold:

1) Logic is the underpinning of any intellectual endeavor, so any person capable of pursuing a logical line of reasoning may ask questions about any endeavor if the question addresses the logic (not facts) of the expert’s approach. In other words, no, I will never question Lisa Randall’s grasp of quarks and gluons because I am and will always be hopelessly under-qualified even to formulate an intelligent question on that subject. But can I ask a question about the philosophy of science that underpins her approach? Absolutely I can! Can I reasonably question Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s expertise in astrophysics? No. But can I question the logic behind his reasoning that the traditional NASA/publicly-funded approach to exploration must continue to be the dominate paradigm? You bet I can!

2) My second reason ends up where this thought started: not only CAN I question scientific minds about their reasoning and approaches; as an active participant in civil society, as a person interested in science and exploration as expressions of our most fundamental human nature, I MUST ask these questions.

This also harkens back to a very basic fallacy often employed in arguments: that expertise in one thing means that one may not be questioned in any area; or conversely, that ineptitude or evil in one area means one’s opinion may never be trusted in any other arena, e.g., the ‘Hitler wanted xyz, ergo xzy must be evil’ argument. Taken to their logical extremes, this means I may not question a scientist’s sanity if he tells me to jump off a building (‘trust me, I did my PhD in gravity!’), and I may assume dogs are inherently evil since Hitler seemed so fond of his.

So as long as we employ logical reasoning, we both can and should engage scientists about their research and ask the fundamental questions. But let’s circle back to the beginning: what about art? As I said, it’s everyone’s business. But then why do so few scientists seem engaged with art and vice versa? I have been thinking about this a lot of late, prompted to do so by several things. One was reading about Lisa Randall’s artistic foray (in which she wrote the libretto for an opera about science). Another reason is a conversation I just had a few days ago on my flight from Boston to Frankfurt. I was lucky enough to be seated next to an artist who just happened to be working on a project that bridges science and art**, and she mentioned her efforts to engage scientists in this way, specifically a project that would require a high level of collaboration between the two camps. (I am being intentionally vague and cagey here as she mentioned one particular project in confidence as it is still in planning phase, and I don’t want to give away anything until her efforts are public.)

But even when scientists do ‘cross over’, they seem to do so while holding their noses. I hate to keep picking on Dr. Randall, but since I am currently reading her book ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ and it provides a perfect example, I fear I must. On page 128 she notes the aesthetic beauty of the LHC, but then quickly draws back in horror at this idea as she ‘recoil[s] … in thinking of this incredibly precise technological miracle as an art project’. Why is this idea so repulsive, I wonder? What can be more beautiful than such a marvel, and one that seeks to answer many of the exact same questions art has been asking for millennia? Far from recoiling at the idea that the LHC is both art and science, this should be a chance to experience deep wonder at the beauty of the whole endeavor and the way it combines both worlds.

If you’re an artist and you’re smugly agreeing, well, hold on a sec. Artists are just as bad, if not worse. I’ll give you an example. Not long ago, a friend posed the following question on her Facebook page: If you could do a PhD in either art history or economics, which would you choose? Not surprisingly, the people who probably fancied themselves more practical chose the latter, and the more artistically-minded chose the former. But one comment in particular caught my eye. I can’t recall the exact words, but it boiled down to this: why would you choose economics over art history when economics just strips away the soul of things and reduces everything to numbers? This haughty dismissal of the beauty that can await you in the sciences (be they the social or physical sciences or mathematics) is unfortunately quite typical of artists’ reaction to all things scientific. But they are being as close-minded as the disdainful scientist in these cases. Take this specific example of economics. Economics isn’t just math and dollars and GDP. Economics is nothing less than an attempt to delve into the human soul and see what makes it tick, what drives it, what motivates people to behave the way they do. Economics is as much about quirky things like why Israeli mothers might pick up their kids from day school even later when they are fined for it, as it is about the GDP of Liechtenstein. (If you’re scratching your head at that reference, I strongly recommend you read Freakonomics, a must-read for everyone, artist, scientist, lay person alike.) Imagine all the creative possibilities artists are missing out on by being so dismissive of science, then.

So whether you are a scientist thinking about art, an artist thinking about science, or just an average Joe like me thinking about both, please remember: it’s ALL your business, and the more you engage, the better off your society will be.

*…who by the way is a man whom I have always very deeply respected, and who is (among many, many other things), an engineer who feels quite entitled to have an opinion about art, thank you very much.

**Isn’t it funny the way the universe seems to clump these things into packages for us? A more spiritual person would say it is Fate, or even God. I would say such observations betray simple selection bias and are circular to boot, i.e., I am writing because these things happened to happen, so I can’t say they happened because I wanted to write about them. Similarly, people in a universe in which certain laws of physics had to be precisely calibrated for them to exist cannot claim this as proof of any god; it’s just proof that if things had been off, there’d be no they to consider such things.