Developments to Watch
An Icelandic Saga About Privacy and DNA
While U.S. and British scientists battle over whether or not genes can be patented, a more brazen effort to commercialize the human genome is going on in Iceland. On Mar. 10, deCode Genetics Inc., a U.S. company, filed a prospectus with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission for an initial public offering. Its primary asset: the genetic information of almost every Icelandic resident.
Iceland's national health system has long maintained a sophisticated national data base containing genetic information and a medical history of all the nation's 270,000 residents. In January, deCode Genetics received a license for exclusive 12-year access to the database from the Icelandic government, for a payment of $200 million. It's a unique resource because almost all Icelanders share a small group of common ancestors going back to the Vikings. Such genetic similarity means that individual genetic anomalies will easily stand out, and could possibly indicate the genes associated with specific diseases.
DeCode, which was founded by a former Icelander, neurologist Karl Stefansson, plans to market the database to drug companies doing genetic research. However, there is a highly vocal movement in Iceland that opposes deCode's plan on the basis of ethical and privacy concerns. Already, some 17,000 people have asked to have their personal genetic information removed from the database. "This company presumed that everyone consented to be on this database unless they opted out," says Michael Fortun, an ethicist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who is advising the Icelandic foes of deCode's plan.Edited by Catherine ArnstReturn to top
"Oh, So You Have a Pig's Heart, Too"
It is the year 2024. You are 75 years Old, and you discover that a man next to you on an airplane has a pig heart, and his arteries are swarming with "smart dust" that sends continuous reports on his condition to his doctor's computer. That's not so strange, because you have a pig heart, too. And by 2049, when you are 100, many of your organs will be replaced. Plus you'll feel better than you did at 50 because "nanolabs" in your blood can manufacture and supply drugs whenever they are needed.
Those are among the provocative speculations in a study of the next 50 years of cardiology, released by the American College of Cardiology on March 15 at its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. The study also predicts that cardiology treatment costs will soar as the population ages and new preventive treatments are introduced. The treatment of heart disease alone, not including stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, was estimated at $102 billion in 1999--roughly 10% of total U.S. health-care expenditures--and could climb to $143.9 billion, a 41% increase, by 2010, the study says. Among the challenges of the next 50 years will be to find ways to cover these costs, says the report. Otherwise, pig-heart transplants and "smart dust" may be available only to the rich.By Paul Raeburn; Edited by Catherine ArnstReturn to top
Fruit Flies May Help Crack Human Insomnia
"To sleep, perchance to dream" may pertain to fruit flies as well as people. In a report in the Mar. 10 issue of Science, researchers say that quiet fruit flies are actually dozing, and their sleep-time biochemistry is similar to that of humans. So much so, in fact, that a fly's sleeping ability can be altered by caffeine.
The researchers, from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, say that because the long-studied fruit fly's genetic composition is so well understood, it can offer clues to sleep disorders in people.
The fruit fly shares with mammals several molecular markers believed to modulate sleep and waking, in particular an enzyme that regulates the levels of key brain chemicals called monamines. In humans, sleep lowers the levels of these chemicals.
To determine if the flies were sleeping or just resting, the researchers subjected them to cycles of 12 hours light/12 hours dark, and found that more than 90% of the flies rested in the darkness. The scientists then compared molecular markers in the resting vs. alert flies, and discovered that the enzyme involved in breaking down monoamines varied between the waking and sleeping states.Edited by Catherine ArnstReturn to top