Did journalists overstate the promise of the human genome project?

 Note that in the Nature Network Boston report on Tuesday’s panel on the human genome project, Broad Institute chief Eric Lander says that journalists naively reported that the genome map would rapidly lead to cures for many diseases.  

 Lander said that expectations for the impact of the research were  “fabulously naïve. Journalists wrote about how we were going to have drugs for all these disease in the next decade. Somebody was smoking something. This was just nuts.”

They say journalism is the art of verification. So we went back to try to find some of these stoner reporters and their overblown claims by reviewing reporting in The New York Times and USA Today. 

Although the paper on the research was published in 2001, the results were announced in the summer of 2000 at a White House press conference. A June 27  NYTimes package entitled “READING THE BOOK OF LIFE: A Historic Quest; Double Landmarks for Watson: Helix and Genome” seemed pretty measured: 

The human genome project may be the gateway to the biology and medicine of the 21st century…

Identifying the genetic variations that predispose people to diseases like cancer, diabetes and schizophrenia was a major purpose of the Human Genome Project…

Even incomplete, the databases of DNA sequences are a treasure trove for researchers, providing answers in a few minutes at a computer terminal rather than after months of laborious, expensive laboratory experiments. For pharmaceutical companies, that speeds the development of new drugs with several promising compounds already undergoing human clinical trials.

For university researchers, that opens up areas of inquiry that would previously not have been worth the time and effort.

More than a year later, on December 25, 2001, a Times update read:

With the Human Genome Project — the effort to work out the sequence of the three billion chemical letters that embody human heredity — nearly complete, biologists are facing a daunting transition.

They must move from their traditional pursuit of understanding one gene at a time to the challenge of figuring out how tens of thousands of genes work in concert in the human cell.

Should they succeed, in 20 years it may be possible to compute the behavior of a cell, perhaps of a living organism, and to calculate how changing one unit of DNA may affect human health or performance.

 Now, here’s a little hyperbole, but from a scientist, not a journalist. Granted, the reporter chooses who to quote.

Dr. Richard Lifton of Yale predicted that in 20 years researchers would be ”able to identify the genes and pathways predisposing to every human disease.” A panel of biologists led by Dr. Michael Snyder, also of Yale, said that in two decades they would like to know the effects on the organism of the smallest possible change in the genetic programming, the switch of a single unit of DNA.

Here’s how USA Today reported on the genome map on June 23, 2000:

Generations of scientists will spend most of the next century interpreting the code’s meaning and learning to play it on computers in increasingly complex ways that they believe will lead to treatments for most, if not all, human diseases.

 The genetic code also will launch a mammoth growth industry and marry the new darlings of Wall Street: computer technology and biotechnology. Scientists from the public and private projects predict that the information contained in the genetic code will allow them for the first time to study the interactions of many different genes involved in
complex diseases such as cancer and heart disease and to develop drugs that target these diseases at their most fundamental root levels.

Were they generating this hype or just reporting it? And, is there any difference? Here’s more from that story:

(Francis) Collins, the U.S. leader of the international Human Genome Project, are expected to announce the completion of their projects at news conferences Monday in Washington….

“Achieving this milestone is an exhilarating moment in history, and a credit to the ingenuity and dedication of some of the brightest scientists of the current generation,” Collins told USA TODAY. “Even more importantly, it brings us a major step closer to understanding and better treating a host of diseases for which genomics offers the best hope of prevention and cure.”…

Some predict the expected health benefits will beginto appear with regularity in about 10 years.

“We will see an increasing proportion of gene-based medicines coming to the market that are targeted to the disease process,” says Paul Herrling, director of global research at Novartis Pharmaceutical Corp. in Basel, Switzerland. “Many traditional therapies address the end stages of disease. These new therapies will address the disease process, so if a person has Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes, we will develop medicines that stop or slow down the disease process.
Having the human sequence is just the beginning.”

 And, do note that Lander was the first author in the  actual paper on the findings, which was, published ten years ago in Nature, concluding:

The scientific work will have profound long-term consequences for medicine, leading to the elucidation of the underlying molecular mechanisms of disease and thereby facilitating the design in many cases of rational diagnostics and therapeutics targeted at those mechanisms.

Finally, Lander made a bold prediction of his own at Tuesday’s panel:

He cited ” an explosion of work that will culminate, I think in the next five years, in a pretty comprehensive list of all the target that lead to different kinds of cancers and give us a kind of roadmap for finding the Achilles heel of cancers for therapeutics and diagnostics.”

 

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