Electrophoresis chambers, packages of the first recombinantly produced insulin, presumably long past their expiration dates, and many other artifacts took their place in a new exhibit, the Birth of Biotech, unveiled October 24 at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution. The occasion confirms, as if confirmation were necessary, that biotech, though hardly 30 years old, is now a national institution, part of the American consciousness. So, all those surprisingly old-fashioned-looking pieces of lab equipment, seemingly inert in their glass cases, are serving a new and enduring purpose. Their practical lives over, they now serve as touchstones, much like Edison’s light bulb or the first personal computers.
Will biotech continue to live up to the glories of its past? Merely asking the question serves a purpose. For if any doubts arise, one naturally resists the conclusion that biotech is failing us. Rather, we feel that we are somehow failing biotech. Such is the power of elevating biotech to the level of folklore. May that power be used wisely. Otherwise, it may devolve to mere boosterism.
The early signs are encouraging. The Birth of Biotech exhibit is accompanied by a website (www.gene.com/biotech), staged by Genentech, which donated more than 130 objects to the exhibit. Genentech clearly has the biotech industry’s best interests at heart. Nonetheless, the company’s Celebrating Biotech website presents a wealth of information, much of it purely educational, with thoughtfulness and restraint.
The website, called “Celebrating the Birth of Biotech,” also live-streamed a panel discussion that marked the opening of the Birth of Biotech exhibit. The distinguished panel included Arthur D. Levinson (chairman of the board, Genentech and chairman of the board, Apple); Kimberly L. Blackwell (professor of medicine, Duke Cancer Institute); George M. Church (Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School); and Daniel Kraft (executive director, FutureMed).
For the most part, the panelists maintained a delicate balance between getting people excited about the possibilities of biotech, and managing expectations. More than one panelist mentioned that contrary to some overoptimistic projections, biotech had not yet cured cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, nor had gene therapy eradicated inherited disease.
In a similar vein, Dr. Church conceded that while analytical techniques had improved at rates consistent with Moore’s Law, such gains may not be sustainable. This comment was just one of many that took up the issue of whether biotech could emulate the Silicon Valley way of doing things.
On this point, given his roles at both Genentech and Apple, Dr. Levinson was uniquely qualified to venture an opinion. In general, he emphasized the challenges unique to biotech, downplaying parallels between the biotech and computer industries. He noted the high failure rates of prospective drugs and the lengthy development cycles in the pharmaceutical industry. He also cited the need for close regulatory oversight, praising the FDA’s flexibility in devising guidelines for multidrug regimens. Dr. Levinson drew the loudest applause of the evening when he suggested that the FDA was capable of “threading the needle,” that is, streamlining approvals to speed innovation, while not permitting “crazy s––t that’s going to kill you.”
Less inclined to rein in the techno-euphoria was Dr. Kraft, who let free with a litany of dazzling concepts—miniaturized point-of-care diagnostic devices with tricorder-like capabilities, implantable or wearable sensors and other devices plugged into the “Internet of things,” and democratized innovation via social networking and crowdsourcing. Lest anyone imagine he was describing science fiction, he would now and then illustrate a point by pulling a glowing object, an actual prototype, from his pocket.
Perhaps more grounded in the day-to-day challenges of caring for patients, Dr. Blackwell emphasized the promise of integrating scientists into clinical practice. Just one way a scientist could be a valuable member of a clinical team, she said, would be to help caregivers sort through all the new treatment possibilities. Already, she added, the one disease/one drug model “has been blown out of the water.”
Dr. Church concurred, saying that many research results have immediate clinical application. But, he added, ultimately medical technology should so distill innovation that you would not need to have a scientist at your side. He gave the example of GPS, early applications of which required considerable expertise, but which now dispenses information via useful, easy-to-follow directives, such as “turn left now.”
All in all, as demonstrated by the panel discussion and the Genentech website, the Birth of Biotech exhibit ably serves its purpose of educating the public and encouraging thoughtful policy discussions. It also suggests that biotech has earned a place in the popular imagination, considering that an early bioreactor now resides in a museum alongside the original Star-Spangled Banner, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
This story has been corrected from an earlier version, which mistakenly said that Herb Boyer’s notebook was on display at the exhibit; it is not. GEN regrets the error.