We're almost 50 years into the biotechnology age and scientists still can't keep a lid on their enthusiasm. Why should they? Why should anyone? The newfound ability to decipher and manipulate genes, spurred by the promise of profits, has already resulted in developments that startle: Bacteria produce human insulin and other hormones; soybeans grow antibodies to the herpes virus; sheep produce milk rich in blood-clotting proteins; crops contain their own pesticides.
There are 79 biotech drugs on the market, and hundreds more in various stages of testing--a fleet of battleships being readied to head off forces already beginning to kill and maim an aging baby boom generation: cancer, heart disease, and brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In the blooming field of agricultural biotech, researchers are working on a second wave of genetically engineered crops, enriched with vitamins, proteins and heart-friendly fats. Moreover, it no longer seems farfetched to suggest that we'll soon test routinely for hundreds of genetic defects and then fix the problem with the genetic equivalent of duct tape: gene splicing. Researchers are injecting raw genes into damaged heart muscle to reverse the effects of heart attacks and transplanting rejuvenated brain cells to replace defective circuitry. There is even talk of attacking aging itself, with enzymes to turn back that ever-ticking biological clock.
So why, as we tip over the edge of the next millennium, do some practitioners of the new science apologize--cooling their zeal with a breath of caution? Why do environmentalists talk of Frankencrops and Frankenfoods, and ethicists fret over efforts to smooth away human variability?
Don't talk to Bryon Vouga, 30, about the importance of the biotech revolution. The Anaheim Hills high school teacher found out that his kidneys were failing at age 16, when he flunked a high school sports physical. Soon he was one of 200,000 Americans who keep themselves alive by using dialysis to remove impurities from their blood. Like most dialysis patients, Vouga also was anemic because his kidneys did not produce enough of a hormone called erythropoietin, which stimulates the growth of red blood cells. He was so anemic, he recalls, that he'd drive his truck to Fullerton Community College, then snooze under the camper shell and miss all of his classes.
His life changed in 1989, when Amgen, the Thousand Oaks biotech company, began mass-producing a genetically engineered hormone under the brand name Epogen. Vouga's still on dialysis, after two unsuccessful kidney transplants and while waiting for a third. But he's now also an avid bicyclist. Last month he took off from Huntington Beach, heading for Jacksonville, Fla., on a 2,700-mile journey sponsored by the National Kidney Foundation, with the backing of Amgen. If all goes well, he'll be finishing about now, after stopping three times a week for his regular dialysis.
The age of biotech was not born like the nuclear era, in a flash of light followed by a mushroom cloud over a shaking desert. It began with a pair of junior researchers working in a lab in England in the early 1950s. There, in a brilliant flash of intellectual light, Englishman Francis Crick and American James Watson figured out the structure of DNA, a long, thread-like molecule already shown to be the chemical of heredity, the instruction manual for most living things.
"There's no question that the discovery set the stage for everything that has happened over the next 50 years," says Caltech President David Baltimore, whose own biotech research won a Nobel Prize. "That discovery came out of the blue. It wasn't one of those things where there was lots of incremental progress."
Watson and Crick discovered not just the architecture of a pretty molecule--the spiraling staircase of the renowned double-helix--but that the structure explained how heredity worked on a molecular level, how the DNA copies itself over and over as cells multiply.
It took from 1961 to 1965 to crack the genetic code, recalls Marshall Nirenberg, chief of the laboratory of biochemical genetics at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and one of dozens of scientists who owe their Nobel prizes to work on genes. He and others figured out that the chemical building blocks in DNA (adenosine, thymine, guanine and cytosine--identified as the letters A, T, G and C) were arranged in three-letter "words" along the length of the molecule, and that each word identified an amino acid to be moved into place to form proteins, like adding so many beads to a string. "It became really obvious to me that you could program cells," said Nirenberg. Place fragments of DNA into them, "and the cells will follow the instructions," he says.