History, Yes, But Biologist’s Imagination Is No Flight Of Fancy

Xconomy National — 

Any book about life science innovation that starts with quotes from Frank Zappa and Albert Einstein promises to be a good read.

The Biologist’s Imagination holds to that promise, as authors William Hoffman and Leo Furcht, both of the University of Minnesota Medical School, take several forays back in history to explain the “crossroads”—perhaps an overused word but perfectly apt—at which we now stand in the exploration and exploitation of biology and our ever-expanding ability to shape the health, wealth, and composition of life on Earth.

Furcht is chair of UM’s department of laboratory medicine and pathology, and Hoffman runs the department’s communications. It’s their second book together; the first was 2008’s The Stem Cell Dilemma.

For a book with “imagination” in the title (subtitle: “Innovation in the Biosciences”), the authors’ forays into the future are rather modest. But they are upfront about how much the book is about the history of biological innovation, brought about by the confluence of scientific inquiry, capitalism, and entrepreneurialism.

The flashbacks are well chosen and, for someone not already steeped in the history of science, enlightening, from a short history of the self-proclaimed “Lunaticks” of Birmingham, England’s Lunar Society, who built a technology cluster and intellectual network that fueled the Industrial Revolution; to the Cold War British scientists who pioneered X-ray crystallography to build the first 3-D models of proteins, when the 25,000 spots on the film were beyond the mathematical capacity “of any existing computational machine” (how’s that for Big Data?); to the social consciousness at the University of Wisconsin, where the discoveries of how to add Vitamin D to milk and, later, the anticoagulant warfarin, were touchstones of the “Wisconsin Idea” of improving the community beyond the school’s walls.

Cover of The Biologist's Imagination by William Hoffman and Leo FurchtOn occasion Hoffman and Furcht veer off course, trying to tie a ribbon of innovation around the whole of human history and nearly skidding into a hagiographic ditch. “We”—meaning the human race—“plumb the secrets of the sciences of life and seek to capture that knowledge and put it to work,” they write. “We may have new ideas and new tools, but we are infused by the same spirit that prompted our distant forbearers to leave the African savannah.”

Mainly, thank goodness, the authors have little need for bombast to make compelling arguments: for breaking down walls between industry, academia, and government; for the reality of climate change and the need for bioscience to help us fight it; for the role of government as the critical source of basic research funding; for the support of open source and open access spreading in the biosciences, just as it has in software.

They excel in laying out the present, although their thoroughness can be a two-edged sword. To flesh out the many components of life science research and development—intellectual property, physical and virtual business networks, computing power, the muscle of urban clusters—they do from time to time write themselves into the weeds. (The details of recent American patent reform or of Edinburgh, Scotland’s BioQuarter cluster planning will thrill only a select few.)

By methodically presenting so much of the present, The Biologist’s Imagination invites us to imagine a relatively near future. It’s a stepwise exercise, not one of bold futuristic leaps: You think the bioscience world is clustered in a few teeming, intellectually privileged urban areas now? Just wait until network effects, path dependence, and other tech-shiny terms really take hold in an ever-more connected world:

“Think of a successful technology cluster today as a learning center, a constellation of pin factories”—Adam Smith’s favorite example, and one the authors return to time and again—“and their suppliers that both compete and collaborate. Through the division of labor, knowledge architecture, communications channels, and increasing returns to scale through higher productivity, firms within the cluster enjoy a competitive advantage they would not enjoy without the proximity of buyers, competitors, suppliers, and research institutions in the neighborhood.”

On this topic, too, their spotlight on the past—in particular, some great background on the origins of North Carolina’s successful Research Triangle Park cluster, as well as New York City’s fitful attempts to build one—is more toothsome than their projections into the future. I would have liked to see them flesh out in more detail—and more imagination—one pundit’s idea of a “therapeutic city,” which would not only have the requisite technology, progressive teaching and research institutes, but also plentiful aging residents who are the “early adopters” of the drugs and medical technology in development around the corner and down the street. (Between the senior citizens and the dirt-poor post-docs and the med students, would anyone ever go dancing or eat a nice dinner out after 6pm in Therapeutic City?)

One sweet spot for Hoffman and Furcht is the world of pharmaceutical development and its shortcomings, even with the latest technologies applied. Drug R&D in the age of high throughput screening has been disappointing, measured by the ratio of dollars spent to drugs approved. But without undue breathlessness, the authors look ahead to fuller use of what’s already begun, and they ask the right questions: “Would a shift to developing drugs against targets informed by human genetics rather than animal models raise the chance of clinical success?”

The answer isn’t an unqualified yes. Sure, biomolecular miniaturization—cells, tissues, and “organs on a chip”—are allowing ever-more precise analysis of our biochemistry and physiology, “but Moore’s law seems unusually alien to conventional drug development, at least to the industry that emerged in the late nineteenth century and is today’s vast global enterprise.”

The breakup of that monolith is underway, to some extent, but the authors leave it an open question whether drug makers, whatever their future size and shape and headcount (and geographic location), can square new bioinformatics and other technologies—nanotechnology, pattern recognition and deep learning through artificial neural networks, remote patient diagnostics and monitoring—with faster, cheaper, more efficient drug development. What new forms and entities of R&D would be better suited is a large part of the discussion, but remains rooted in the experimental business models and private/public or for-profit/non-profit re-arrangements we’re already seeing on a frequent basis.

As noted earlier, if you’re looking for detailed visions of the future, this isn’t your book. The farthest the authors venture are scattered references to neuroeconomics: the way our brains process incentives and seek reward, for example, perhaps becoming targets for therapeutic intervention or alteration. The oddest reference is their summation (and, I assume, endorsement) of a British study called the Foresight Project that called for shoring up a nation’s “mental capital.”

“Interventions,” write Hoffman and Furcht, “including behavioral, educational, social, and pharmaceutical, are entirely justified under appropriate circumstances to keep a country mentally healthy and competitive.” (Less creepy is their enthusiasm for the age-old neurostimulant caffeine, and its omnipresence in the London coffeehouses where stock markets were born and Adam Smith worked on The Wealth of Nations.)

And if you’re looking for not just acknowledgment but fiery critique that technological progress has wrought crises of climate change, a looming sixth great extinction, an epidemic of obesity—this isn’t the book for you, either. There are small, often off-handed references to worrisome trends. The potential for malicious engineering of bioweapons gets barely a mention. Practically the only reference to the human toll of technological displacement comes when the authors quote J. Craig Venter as he boasts about his firm Synthetic Genomics:

“‘You know, this is the most futurist manufacturing planet on the planet right now,’ Venter said in describing his genomics center while inadvertently revealing the toll automation takes on the scientific workforce. ‘You’re seeing Henry Ford’s first assembly plant. What don’t you see? People, right?'”

They don’t gloss over all problems, to be sure. They are clear, for example, that we still have no idea what most genes do, and that 23andMe’s service was about as useful for assessing health risks as a trip to the local fortune teller. Or that, while next-generation DNA sequencing has already passed the price/performance pace of Moore’s law for semiconductors, there’s a long road ahead in separating the signal from all the genomic noise. That discussion then steers just a bit wonky, into the College of American Pathologists’ laboratory accreditation process and CLIA certification. A necessary diversion, probably, but such diversions keep The Biologist’s Imagination from being as imaginative as one might hope.

One passage in particular sums up the tension between the two ambitions to stay grounded and soar. It’s in the section where the authors quite thoroughly and responsibly lay open the crucial question of intellectual property rights over the very basics of our biological stuff. There’s excellent historical background on the origin of the American patent system, on the 20th century rise of tech transfer and venture capital, on the political fragility of the legislation that became the seminal Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, and on more recent Supreme Court actions to strike down key patents of genes. But they refuse to come down on either side.

“The courts have ventured into terrain from which no uniform and consistent position or test can be easily derived and applied,” they write, and then a few pages later: “Sorting out legal claims for bioproducts and their methods would be an enormous task under ordinary circumstances, but we are in extraordinary times.”

Indeed we are, and extraordinary times produce extraordinary innovation from extraordinary imaginations. Hoffman and Furcht have done a fine and detailed job describing how we’ve reached these times and the platforms upon which the next century of innovators will build. It’s a work of great service to anyone, like me, who is scrambling to keep up with so many complex, interdependent layers of science and strategy. And sometimes that’s even better than a flight of imagination.

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One response to “History, Yes, But Biologist’s Imagination Is No Flight Of Fancy”

  1. sciguybm says:

    Because you can does not mean you should.
    The concept that our science and knowledge has advanced so far meaning that we have to take the corporate, industrial he!! that goes with it is ludicrous. (and I don’t mean the rapper)