Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Genetic Revolution: A Snapshot

Back in September 2005 I signed up for a Google Alerts on the topic "Gene Therapy". Google Alerts “are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic”. So I receive an email notifying me of the internet link for any news story posted on the topic “Gene Therapy”. Compiling 8 months of Google Alerts provided me with a fascinating glimpse of the momentum of the genetic revolution. I received *hundreds* (after 200 I gave up counting!) of updates on various news reports. But the quantity of stories and reports is not the most interesting part of this tale. What is truly fascinating is the *variety* of news stories, each of which bring to the fore a different dimension of these incredible innovations and the challenges we face. Let me try to bring this snapshot of the genetic revolution to life by highlighting some of the different components of the story of gene therapy (as told by 8 months of Google Alerts!).

One part of this picture is the story of the noble search for ways to prevent or cure genetic disease. This story in the connected.telegraph is the story about a "germline" genetic therapy for metabolic diseases, a story that raises ethical concerns about germline interventions and human rights. There is also this press release which reports that a clinical trial has resumed, despite some setbacks, into a treatment of X-linked severe combined Immuno-deficiency (X-SCID), an inherited genetic disease. There is also this story which reports that University of Florida scientists used a healthy human gene to prevent blindness in mice with a form of an incurable eye disease that strikes boys. And finally, today's Google Alerts bring this story about a long-term animal study which suggests that SCID Gene Therapy itself causes cancer in about a third of cases. Four different stories highlighting the successes and setbacks in the struggle to mitigate genetic disadvantage.

During the Winter Olympics in February there were stories like this, this, and this. Stories which highlight the concern that professional athletes might engage in gene doping. February also brought the report about Hashmukh Patel, a 62-year-old retired semiconductor engineer from Silicon Valley. Hashmukh suffers from late-stage cancer of the esophagus and travels to Beijing for a Chinese gene therapy drug called Gendicine ( the world's first commercially approved gene therapy drug).

The Google Alert's snapshot also brings to the fore the issue of funding biomedical research. This snapshot reveals a mixture of public and private funding. So there is the story about a 2 million Euro grant from the Dutch governmental organization Senter to fund an innovative therapeutic that promotes nerve regeneration. There is also this report about a contract between Cobra Biomanufacturing Plc. and the Australian company Replikun Biotech. A deal aimed at supporting the development of an innovative gene therapy method. And finally there is the story of actor Michael J. Fox's grant of $4.2 million to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center affiliate called Rheo Gene Inc. The grant funds the development of gene therapy for Parkinson's disease (Fox has Parkinson's).

I conclude my story of the Google Alert's snapshot with the update I received today- this report, which is the final quarter results for Oncolytics Biotech Inc. Under the heading "General Risk Factors" is the following sage insight:

"Prospects for biotechnology companies in the research and development stage should generally be regarded as speculative. It is not possible to predict, based upon studies in animals, or early studies in humans, whether a new therapeutic will ultimately prove to be safe and effective in humans, or whether necessary and sufficient data can be developed through the clinical trial process to support a successful product application and approval."

The Google Alerts for just the past 8 months gives us a glimpse of the complex myriad of ethical, social and legal issues raised by the new genetics. The stories linked above are just a brief snapshot of the larger story that is unfolding around us with rapid speed. The story of our search for solutions to the arbitrary and often tragic consequences of the natural lottery of life is one of both successes and setbacks. But it is also an incredible story of human ingenuity and determination. And perhaps that is the biggest story revealed in the snapshot provided by Google Alerts.