`We Are Now Starting The Century Of Biology'

Already, genetic engineering is transforming medicine and agriculture--and that's just scratching the surface

Late last year, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology laid bare an intricate twist of the AIDS virus using the latest advances in a powerful technique known as X-ray crystallography. HIV, they found, attacks our cells like a miniature Captain Ahab, using a molecular harpoon to breach their defenses.

New research technologies are vastly accelerating the pace of discovery in biology, driving forward not only medicine but also industry, environmental cleanup, and agriculture. Scientists are unlocking biochemical pathways in cancer, clogged arteries, and Alzheimer's disease. Not only are they understanding life, they're manipulating it. They are slipping new genes into people to treat disease and genetically engineering plants and animals to boost yields or transform them into bio-factories of plastics and drugs.

Add it all up, and just as information technology undergirds today's booming economy, biology may drive tomorrow's. In fact, biology could transform information technology through such developments as DNA-based computers and software that repairs flaws as nature does. "We are now starting the century of biology," says J. Craig Venter, president of the Institute for Genomic Research and pioneering gene finder.

The potential payoff is huge. Corn yields could double, for instance. And science could eventually find ways to stave off heart disease and cancer, which account for $232 billion of the nation's $1 trillion annual health-care bill. "We have a chance to achieve incredible economic benefits," says Henri A. Termeer, president and CEO of biotech company Genzyme Corp., at a recent Senate hearing.

BUG BUZZ. Not everyone agrees that the new era of biology will be an economic boon. Pessimists focus on the cost of medical technologies and the burden of the aging. "We could have an entirely new set of problems caused by generations of healthy humans who refuse to die," speculates Dr. William B. Schwartz, an economist and professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, in his new book, Life Without Disease: The Pursuit of Medical Utopia.

Biological science and technology are forging ahead even as the economic debate simmers. The coming wave of innovation could wipe out many age-old scourges, scientists predict. Already, research centers such as Venter's have read the entire DNA codes for the bugs that cause cholera and tuberculosis, opening the door to better treatments and vaccines. "It gives me tremendous hope that we can finally win the battle against bacteria," says Venter.

The discovery of thousands of human genes and biochemical pathways has "transformed the pharmaceutical industry," says George Poste, chief scientific officer at SmithKline Beecham Corp. "Companies have gone from having so few targets [for drugs], which were guarded like Fort Knox, to being awash in targets." Even greater gains will come when scientists better understand humans' genetic differences. "The sequences of people are 99.9% the same--and the 0.1% that's different will revolutionize medicine," says geneticist Dr. David R. Cox of Stanford University.

Using so-called DNA chips being developed by companies such as Affymetrix Inc., scientists will catalog thousands of key genetic variations for any individual, creating a sort of "genetic bar code." Using that information, "we will be able to use drugs like lasers rather than shotguns," says Dr. Leon Rosenberg, a Princeton University molecular biologist and former research chief at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. "We will know whom to treat, whom not to treat, and we won't treat everyone the same way."

Within decades, the genetic bar code will take on deeper meaning. Once scientists puzzle out more of the biological pathways leading to, say, cancer or stroke, these bar codes will become crystal balls. In our twisting strands of DNA, it will be possible to spot what diseases could appear in our future and our chances of getting them. Of course, this also raises explosive societal questions about who should have this information--insurers, for instance--but at least there will be the option of making lifestyle changes or using preventive treatments to lessen the odds.

HOG HEAVEN. Indeed, the world is poised for the biggest change in medicine since Hippocrates. People have always gone to doctors when they're sick. But what if medicine could prevent everything from heart disease and cancer to tuberculosis and AIDS from striking in the first place? The need for expensive surgeries and drug treatments would plummet. "Prevention leads to not only a longer, healthier life, but also much cheaper medicine," argues former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Nor is medicine the end of the excitement. Increasingly, the nation's amber waves of grain are laden with added genes. As many as 70 million acres of gene-spliced corn and soybeans are being planted this year, vs. zero a few years ago. Richard L. McConnell, senior vice-president for research and development at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., figures that adding genes to help corn withstand bad weather and pests could double current yields. According to Pioneer's economic models, such advances mean the price of corn over the next quarter-century will probably be about what it is today--despite a 40% increase in the world's population.

Pioneer and others are also tinkering with genes that increase crops' nutritional value. One gene Pioneer has added to corn increases the amount of phosphorus available to the pigs that eat it. Farmers don't have to add costly phosphorus supplements to the feed--and hogs' waste is less laden with nutrients that can wreak ecological havoc.

The new biology promises to change manufacturing, as well. Novo Nordisk, for instance, makes enzymes that reduce the need for environmentally harmful chlorine in papermaking. Another enzyme can replace several pounds of stones used to "stone wash" blue jeans. Fewer stones means less damage to the clothes, less wear on machines, and less pumice dust in the laundry. In tomorrow's world, "a significant and increasing chunk of the world economy will be dominated by the life sciences," predicts Harvard University-affiliated economist Juan Enriquez Cabot.

Visionaries predict the new biology will make people healthier and longer-lived. The debate is over whether the cost of health care to society will fall as people live longer. Skeptics say that many new drugs and procedures will be immensely expensive. "The economy simply cannot absorb all, or even more than 50%, of the things now in the pipeline," argues Dr. Alan L. Hillman, director of the Center for Health Policy at the Wharton School. "The new technology will be both a blessing and a curse," says USC's Schwartz. "Over the next 10 to 20 years, we will just see costs going up."

Indeed, a combination of rising life expectancies and demographics is raising the specter of a 21st century crisis. The health-care bill for Alzheimer's disease is already $100 billion per year. And as today's boomers reach the ages of greatest risk for the disease, the tab could soar, says Zaven Khachaturian, former head of Alzheimer's research at the National Institute on Aging. "A major public-health crisis may be coming."

Despite their warnings, Khachaturian and others are optimistic that this crisis can be avoided. There are indications that estrogen or anti-inflammatory drugs might delay the onset of Alzheimer's for a year or two. After finding genes that cause early Alzheimer's, researchers are beginning to understand the underlying biology--the crucial first step to discovering better ways to block the disease.

With such advances in the works, it's clear that biology is in the midst of an unprecedented wave of innovation. And the ultimate applications of today's research are as unpredictable as those of the past. Who would have guessed that Pentagon-funded research on communication networks in the 1960s would ultimately have spawned car shopping on the World Wide Web? Likewise, today's explorations of the genome will change the world in ways we can't imagine.

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