The Genomics Grinch

Theral Timpson

One of the handy tools a journalist can use is a sharp pin.  It’s quite helpful when encountering over inflated balloons, such as the politican’s ego,  a financial bubble, or the hype around going to war.   When the pin is used at the right time, and on the right target, there is no question that the resulting “pop” is heard by everyone.  

However, when there is no over inflated balloon to pop, and a journalist still pulls out his pin, he just comes across as a nasty grinch.  This was the case with a piece in BuzzFeed last week by the science journalist, David Dobbs.

“We live in an age of hype,” writes Dobbs, questioning the value of genomics research and the money we are spending on it.   "It is as if they [geneticists] cracked a safe they knew was packed with cash and found almost nothing." 

That there is hype around genomics, I’ll concede.  But Dobbs is way too soon to say the strides we're making in precision medicine are almost nothing.  It’s akin to Senator Jim Inhofe bringing the snowball into the senate floor as proof against global warming.  Or citing the one scientist out of a hundred who questions whether the planet is heating up as a result of increased amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution with the future of our planet?  And shouldn’t we be willing to put up with some natural hype ( a scientist overselling their discovery, a journalist adding some lustre, a businessman jumping in on a hot IPO) about what are some remarkable accomplishments in biotechnology and keep our gaze on the long view?

I know what hype is.  I go to the same conferences as Dobbs where we hear of new studies that promise to show this or that.  We hear about new technologies that will “impact patient outcomes.”   I’ll never forget the first time I interviewed someone in Silicon Valley who told me that we could achieve eternal life by reversing aging.   I had an extra beer that night for sure.

Unfortunately, Dobbs confuses capitalism, genuine hope on the part of patients, and the power of the human will to survive and learn with hype.  

“It would be responsible, however, for researchers to temper their hype — though this seems unlikely, because hype pays.”

And . . .?  That particular version of hype is called capitalism.  It funds science.

Dobbs says that the hype around genomics warps the expectations of patients and the incentives of scientists.  

I’ve interviewed a lot of scientists, and doctors, business leaders, policy experts, and patients.  Yes, my job is to cut through the hype and get to the real story.    I’ll share one such interview that I did with Jay Lake, a sci-fi writer with lung cancer who ended the show thanking and pleading with our audience of researchers:  “Please keep up the great work.   Please continue.”

Jay came on the program back in 2013 to tell about his experience getting his genome sequenced.  Jay’s oncologist was at the end of his rope with known treatments.  But that wasn’t enough for Jay.  Jay wanted to try every possible option, so he and his father, a former US ambassador, spent a great deal of time and energy getting Jay’s genome sequenced and interpreted.   And with this new tool, a new prognosis.  Jay would blog up to four times a day about his journey with cancer, and on our show he was honest about how “painful and difficult” it was getting help from genomic experts.  (It’s much cheaper and more available now.)  Still he persevered to find answers in his genome until the end.   In June of 2014, he died.

Now Dobbs would say I'm providing another example of warped expectations.

No, Dobbs.    You have it the wrong way around.  More than scientists warping the expectations of patients, I’d argue that patients like Jay Lake have been pushing the scientists.

Jay fought long and hard, and in the process compelled his doctors to push the envelope, scientists to make new hypotheses, and translational  researchers to go the next step.  Most of all, Jay showed great heart against the odds.  

This wasn’t hype, David, but the will to live.

What is overlooked in Dobbs' piece is a long view on the incredible achievement that has been made in the study of biology.  The response on Twitter to this article didn’t reveal too many warped expectations on the part of the scientists either.

“We were promised flying cars, all we got was fundamental insight into the nature of human variation,” tweeted a snarky computational human geneticist, Joe Pickerell.

So, no, I don’t question that there are cases at the ready to use in pooh-poohing genomics.  (Dobbs begins with the recent bad news that the one gene therapy drug that has been in use is now showing some limits.)  I poked fun a couple weeks ago at the poor case our industry has made for persons to have their genome sequenced in our comic weekly wrap.  But let’s remember the proverb we heard as kids.  For every two steps forward, we see a step back.   How about the story of Dr. Sidney Farber that was told in the  recent Ken Burns documentary on cancer?  Farber pioneered the first use of chemo therapy.  Kids with leukemia who had death sentences were gaining back health.  There was a lot of hope generated.  Journalists emptied their pens.  Then?  After six months, the revived children succumbed again to their cancer.  Should Farber have given up?  

I mean, just who is David Dobbs to call quits on the genomics revolution anyway?

Beyond the long list of practical genomics based assays being used in the clinic or drug development, from new options in cancer therapy to non-invasive prenatal testing, genomics is one of the greatest scientific stories of the past fifty years.  That humans developed the technology to see our own genetic code -- all 3 billion bases -- ranks with the discoveries of Darwin and Mendel.  It’s perhaps our greatest achievement since the landing on the moon.    Let’s tell that story for many, many more generations!

But no, Dobbs will have none of it, insisting on a sinister reading of history.

“After 110 years of genetics, and 15 years after the $3.8 billion Human Genome Project promised fast cures, after more billions spent and endless hype about results just around the corner, we have few cures,” David provokes. “And we basically know diddly-squat.”

Should we really tell nameless breast cancer patients who’ve had 10 or 20 years added to their lives-- to name just one example -- that it’s just “diddlly-squat?”

Dobbs has made a name for himself by combining a comfortable knowledge of biology with a blunt discourse.   In a New York Times editorial he called Nick Wade’s book about race and genes, “dangerous.”  (I think he was right about that.)  He’s also demonstrated an ambition to mess about with the science of biology itself, as he did with his article at Aeon, Die Selfish Gene, Die.   Here Dobbs was attempting to call it quits on an established scientific meme.  The piece was lambasted by several evolutionary biologists, including Jerry Coyne, who wrote two long pieces about how “Dobbs mucks up evolution.”  Coyne muses about whether it was "ambition or boredom" on Dobbs' part.  Whatever it was, such was the outcry among scientists that Dobbs significanlty revised and republished the article with a toned down version.  

Though Dobbs attempts here to see the age of genomics as an over-inflated balloon and he, the enlightened journalist, standing there with his trusty pin, we never hear the “pop.”  Rather we hear an “ouch” as he retreats to a very narrow view of biomedical history filled with diminishing language.

On the Mendelspod program, we continually hear from our leading geneticists,  “we’re just at the beginning of all this.”  Geneticists like David Schwartz from the University of Wisconsin Madison, who compared today’s biology methods with the first days of tinkering around with televisions.  Perhaps there’s a reason scientists maintain an optimistic view of the future.    It inspires them, and fills us all with wonder. 

This is no balloon.  Just below some surface hype is a hard-wired human drive to know.  What you're really writing about, Dobbs, is the human heart.  And it doesn’t pop.


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