history of science

Five Reasons Why Scientists Should Not March . . . And Five Reasons Why They Might Just Should

Gene and Tonic

1.  There’s no good and elegant way for a scientist to march.  For one thing, there are no slide projectors.  In fact, there are really no tools for marching, except the bull horn.  And that takes someone who wants to talk loudly.   Duh!  Scientists don’t actually do things.  They get tools to do them.  

2.  Scientists marching in America would look too French.  Guillotines are for frogs and mice, not people.  

Many Biologists Today Don’t Have Enough Computer Science to Use the Databases

Moray Campbell was for all intents and purposes an accomplished and successful cancer biologist at the renowned Roswell Park Cancer Center. Then one day he woke up and realized he was becoming irrelevant. He was a traditionally trained wet lab biologist who was getting left behind by computer science. Any scientist must keep up with their field, but this was different. A few conferences and journals--reading the news everyday was not going to be enough. Facing reality, Moray enrolled in a bioinformatics masters program at Johns Hopkins.

That was in 2013.

"Biology is genomics. And genomics is basically computer science,” says Moray at the outset of today’s program. “In 2013 I would have said I look at the epigenetics of prostate cancer. Now I say that I look at the epigenomics of prostate cancer. I’ve become genomically literate."

What was it like for Moray to go back to school mid-career with teachers and homework and finals? Did he doubt his decision when the going got tough? Is it harder for biologists to learn coding or coders to learn biology?

Moray is now finished with his degree and in the process learned that as a discipline, we're still struggling with how to teach genomics to biologists.

He gives the example of datasets such as TCGA that many biologists today don’t even know how to use.

“These data are there. And they’re being used very deeply,” he says. "But I suspect by quite a restricted community. If you don’t even know how to download a file, how are you going to be able to analyze it?"

It's been a dramatic transition for Moray. Looking back now he says, "biology is dead; long live biology."

Hank Greely on “The End of Sex" and Other Stuff

Each year at this time we bring on a guest who is somewhat out of the way of our normal lineup, for example, a science fiction writer or a philosopher. Today Theral interviews a law professor who loves to philosophize and write about the impact of biotechnology on our lives now and in the near future. His newest book out this year, “The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction,” is another comprehensive and provocative example of what has made Stanford’s Hank Greely such an in-demand speaker both to scientist and non-scientist audiences alike.

“My prediction in the book is that in twenty to forty years, most people with good healthcare will conceive their children in a lab using stem cell derived eggs--and sometimes sperm—and then do whole genome sequencing preimplantation genetic diagnosis and pick the embryo they want,” says Hank at the outset of today’s extended interview.

Whereas sci-fi writers and the mainstream press often play into what Hank calls "our need for scary bedtime stories," he seeks to understand and elucidate the actual--and less dramatic--"muddling through" of new technologies into our lives.

In addition to discussing the book, we talk with Hank about his relationship to his colleague scientists at Stanford, what he thinks is the breakthrough technology of 2016, and the future of the FDA in the era of Trump.

Luke Timmerman on His New Biography of Lee Hood

There is tons of life science journalism. Our coffee tables and inboxes fill up each week with that quarterly or that daily. We sift through headlines and product advertisements to assess what’s going on in our industry. It’s our job to know. In this age of several-times-per-day newsletters and 24 hrs a day Twitter, we catch what we can.

And occasionally, we come across a carefully written piece or a well done interview, and we take a moment to realize with some awe the history that is being made in our industry.

Occasionally. Which is why a new book out by veteran biotech journalist and the guest of today’s show, Luke Timmerman, is such a rare treat.

Hood is a thrilling ride through the life of the visionary biologist, Lee Hood, told by someone who is not afraid to show the shiny and the not so shiny. From his boyhood in Montana to being chair of the biology department at Caltech where he oversaw the invention of the automated DNA sequencer, to being recruited to Seattle by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Hood’s journey becomes the perfect vehicle for Timmerman to probe into the messy corners of science and put an intimate, human face on the history of biotech. Covering Hood’s move to the University of Washington as a young Seattle based reporter, Timmerman has known Lee Hood for several years. It's a full scale biography, efficiently and confidently written with an insider's perspective and access. Timmerman says it's an “unofficial biography,” meaning Hood was supportive of the project, but Timmerman had full freedom.

Playing historian has been somewhat of a fantasy for the long time journalist.

"There are things that are happening in the moment which a journalist can call people on, but you don’t really get the whole story. There’s only so much people can say and there are not a whole lot of documents that come available when you’re on deadline. But when you’re a biographer, and you have the luxury of time, and people have moved on, things become a lot less sensitive. People become more willing to talk, and a whole lot of documents become available through the public record.”

Who is this man, Lee Hood, and how has he impacted our industry? In the book, we read of the time when Hood holds a press conference to announce his team has done it—they’ve got an automated DNA sequencer. But, standing at perhaps the pinnacle of his career, Hood forgets to mention the "team" part. It’s a flaw that will go on to haunt what by any measure has been a remarkably successful career.

What impact has the subject made on the author? And what does Timmerman hope for the book?

To round out the interview, we get Timmerman’s thoughts on his new gig, the Timmerman Report, and the recent Sarepta decision by the FDA.

Five Reasons France Has Become the Number One Anti-Vaccination Nation

A recent study shows that the French are, to an alarming degree, against vaccinating.  Huh?  The ultra secular and increasingly atheist, nuclear power dominated, science loving, Voltaire producing French?  It doesn’t make any sense.  According to this study a whopping 41% of the French are holding out against vaccines.  Compare that to just 14% in the U.S.  Which nations are best about their vaccinations?  Those in Southeast Asia and Africa.  They still remember what it’s like to not like pol

August 2016 with Nathan and Laura

It’s the end of summer and end of another month. Joining us to discuss the genomics headlines of August are Laura Hercher and Nathan Pearson.

A recent study demonstrating that breast cancer patients with low genomic risk may not need chemotherapy is just what precision medicine is all about, isn’t it? Theral and Laura think the study is a big deal. Nathan’s not so sure.

Nathan is convinced though that Eurocentric studies have implicit racism. Laura agrees, saying the lack of racial diversity in biological databases is a major weakness that we must face head on.

Also, the FDA issued a report supporting Oxitec’s GM mosquitos for use in Florida. Laura is on board with the science but warns about smugness on the part of the scientific community. And George Church’s lab released a reengineered e. coli. Nathan imagines a new genomic language of 2 letter codons.

The Days of Miracle and Wonder: Laura Hercher on Genetic Counseling, Part 2

We often hear at conferences that there are too few genetic counselors. And that this bottleneck is constraining the delivery and promise of genomic medicine. Is this true?

It is 100% true, says Laura Hercher of Sarah Lawrence College in the second part of our interview on genetic counseling.

“We graduate just under 300 genetic counselors a year. And last year at our annual meeting [National Society of Genetic Counselors], there were posted over 600 jobs. We’re producing jobs at a much greater rate than we’re producing counselors.”

The interview moves to a broader discussion about how society goes about keeping up with the increasing amount and power of genomic technologies, such as new gene editing techniques. Laura reads an excerpt of her recent piece at the DNAExchange.com

“There is no simple solution to this, but the battle begins with how we define ‘we’. Genetics needs to remind us of what we share as often as it tells us how we are different. Many of you are out there every day fighting battles you may not recognize as part of a larger war: battling insurance companies for access, battling to bring diversity to our biobanks and clinical trials, supporting a new vision of family, in which our 99.9% shared DNA is enough, and we are not defined by the fraction that is identical by descent. We are educators in a field that is an agent of change, and so it falls to us to work for an ever more expansive and inclusive definition of ‘we’. Without that, we risk that the amazing technology of the genomic age will be perverted into a tool for doubling down on the things that divide us.

These are the days of miracles and wonder

This is the long distance call

The way the camera follows us in slo-mo

The way we look to us all

The way we look to a distant constellation

That’s dying in a corner of the sky

These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don’t cry baby don’t cry

Don’t cry

The Days of Miracle and Wonder: Laura Hercher on Genetic Counseling, Part 1

They’ve been called the “unsung heroes” of our age. They are primarily women. And when the trend for most of us is to become specialists, they have been generalists.

Today we begin a special series on genetic counselors. Our first guest, a genetic counselor herself, is a name familiar to our audience. Laura Hercher is one of our regular month-in-reviewers, and today it’s all about her. She is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College where the first genetic counseling program was begun in 1969 and where half of the nation’s genetic counselors have been trained.

Like many other fields, there are different schools of thought when it comes to genetic counseling. In today's show, Laura says that the older method was for the counselor to decide what genetic data was good for the patient. It was thought that "genetic information is super explosive, and you have to treat it like non-exploded ordnance all the time and be very very careful what you give out."

Now, Laura says, the trend in genetic counseling matches that in the world at large "where people expect a free flow of information," and more is left up to the patient. "The early studies we've gotten have suggested that people can handle information."

What makes a good counselor? And is there a difference between counseling in the clinical setting and counseling for industry?

These are a few of the questions we cover in Part 1 of the interview.

Listen to Part 2.

Know Then Thyself: Kari Stefansson, deCODE genetics

Kari Stefansson is a name well known in the field of human genetics. His founding of deCODE genetics in his native Iceland in 1996 took our field into a new frontier with the unique opportunity to work with not only a homogenous population but also to integrate with a large centralized healthcare database. It also surfaced a huge ethical debate about genomic privacy.

We’re very happy to welcome Kari to the program for the first time to talk about his vision for deCODE now that the company has been bought by Amgen. The company has continued to publish papers revealing major findings of rare variants associated with common diseases. Just last month Kari and deCODE published a paper in the NEJM with the discovery of a gene called ASGR1. The gene lowers the risk of heart disease by a substantial 34%.

Kari is passionate about discovery for the sake of discovery.

“All life on earth is rooted in information that lies in the simple code of As and Gs and Cs and Ts of DNA,” he reminds us. “Some of our discoveries are knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is man studying man.”

But he also points out that as soon as they made the discovery of the ASGR1 heart-protective gene, researchers at Amgen went to work immediately on a drug discovery program. And, he says, he knows that many other pharma companies have already begun similar programs.

deCODE is perhaps best known though for their project to create a genomic database unlike any in the world. And for the ethical issues this has brought up. Last year deCODE announced that they had sequenced enough individuals to impute the genomes for the entire population of Iceland. This could lead to a new kind of preventative healthcare system that would be a model for other countries everywhere. It’s also left Kari and his colleagues scratching their heads over whether, for example, they have a social obligation to find out who in Iceland carries the dangerous BRCA mutations.

He shares some dramatic statistics that reveal their dilemma:

"Women who carry this mutation have 86% probability of developing a lethal cancer. They have 72% probability of developing breast cancer. They have a life expectancy that is twelve years shorter than non-carriers. They are three times more likely to die before the age of 70 than the non-carriers. And most of this risk could be mitigated by preventative surgery, for example.”

The interview goes well over our typical target of 20 minutes. But Kari is a deliberate thinker and an eloquent speaker. Enjoy.




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