Review: Genes, cells and brains – The Promethean promise of the new biology by Hilary and Steven Rose

Review: Genes, cells and brains – The Promethean promise of the new biology by Hilary and Steven Rose

I am a scientist by trade and as such am frankly proud to be part of an enterprise in which the evidence is king. Not for us dogma, blind prejudice or even personal greed and ego. If the evidence says you’re right, you are; if it contradicts you, you’re not. At least that’s what I’d like to think. This is an angry book and maybe the Roses were angry as writers for the same reason I was angry as reader, angry at how neoliberalism and globalisation have distorted scientific research and discovery into little more than a profit making exercise for ‘Big Pharma’.

Steven Rose is emeritus professor of life sciences at the Open University, Hilary is emeritus professor in social policy at the University of Bradford, both are Marxists.

Prometheus stole fire from Olympus to give to humanity, against Zeus’ orders. Zeus understood the dangers of giving mere mortals such a powerful tool as fire. Prometheus was punished by being tied to a stake and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have it regenerate overnight so the torture could continue for eternity. Mary Shelley described Doctor Frankenstein as “the Modern Prometheus”, also driven by benign intentions he nevertheless created ‘a monster’.

The premise of ‘Genes’ is that “the blurring of boundaries between science and technology, universities, entrepreneurial biotech companies and the major pharmaceutical companies, or ‘Big Pharma’… part of a globalised economy” have created a monster far more terrifying than Victor Frankenstein’s and, unlike his or Prometheus’s, not always the result of benign intentions.

When I was a student, universities were seen as more-or-less independent of government, business interests or the military, these clear distinctions no longer exist. Take the Human Brain Project (HBP), funded by the taxpayers of the European Union to the tune of an estimated €1.2 billion. Its director is Henry Markram, professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lousanne. His lab is a few minutes walk away from IBM’s facilities and the two already collaborate. The HBP intends to build an artificial mouse brain using “revolutionary computer technologies”. It’s not difficult to guess whose.

A massive undertaking, like the Human Brain Project, needs to attract huge amounts of government funding. One way to encourage politicians to vote for these is to make wildly exaggerated claims about what these projects can achieve. A previous example of where this happened was the Human Genome Project (HGP). When this was launched in 1991 a particularly enthusiastic and effusive editorial in Science read:

Illnesses such as manic depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and heart disease are probably all mutagenic………To continue the current warehousing or neglect of these people, many of whom are in the ranks of the homeless, is the equivalent of providing iron lungs to the victims of polio at the expense of working on a vaccine”.

The Human Genome Project it seemed would end homelessness!

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair triumphantly announced the completion of the HGP in 200, 13 years ago. Yet all the above conditions are actually on the increase. The truth is that Gregor Mendel was lucky in his choice of subject to study when he founded the science of genetics. Very few characteristics, let alone diseases, are caused by a single gene operating in a simple Mendelian way. Genes interact with other genes and with other chemicals in the cell; genes in one individual have a different effect to the same gene in a different person and so on.

The Roses argue that it is folly to try to reduce a human being to a series of base pairs (the building blocks of DNA and that much mental illness, let alone homelessness, is the result of class society and not the work of a single ‘rogue’ gene.

But it is not all bad news for the HGP. President Obama was able to announce that it had generated $141 for the US economy for every federal dollar spent. The Human Genome Project’s success is being measured in “wealth not health”.

The Human Genome Project did help isolate the single gene that causes a rare disorder, Familial Hypercholesterolaemia (FH). This distressing condition is of particular interest to the authors since Hilary is a sufferer. For the drugs companies it seemed very promising, a personalised medicine that fits with their, and capitalism’s, individualist ideology. The problem for Big Pharma is that the overwhelmingly most successful treatment is various life-style changes together with the long-known benefits of the “one-size-fits-all statins” that will soon come out of patent and drop in price – good news for patients and health-care providers but bad news for the pharmaceutical giants, who are no longer researching FH as a result.

Once you’ve attracted investment from public sources or venture capital, in the latter case probably putting your new company’s head office on the university campus next to your own laboratory, speed is of the essence. Maximising your income from your research means getting results before anyone else and there are a number of ways of doing this.

The major pharmaceutical companies have sub-contracted the trialing of new drugs to companies operating in Africa who ignore international laws about informed consent and so on, that were brought in after the Nuremberg trials. This saves them a fortune and dramatically reduces the delay between laboratory and chemists shelf. Unfortunately for the patient however, it raises all sorts of questions as to the validity of the trials. Not to mention the unethical and unacceptable treatment of the test subjects.

Other ethical considerations may be sidestepped in the race to maximise profit, like the scandalous removal of tissue from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient, without her consent and later commercialised and research based on it even published on the Internet. There are huge questions to be answered here about the storage and use of people’s genetic codes, even if the initial storage and use for ‘research’ is consensual. Is it right that a person’s genetic material can later be patented by a private company? British law currently says it is. What about the implications of insurance companies discovering or even worse, insisting on being given, a person’s genetic code before offering them a policy? What if the tobacco companies were able to advise people of their likelihood of contracting lung cancer?

If you are really desperate to be the first to publish you can always simply falsify your results, as the now disgraced South Korean Hwang Woo-Suk did in relation to somatic cell nuclear transfer. Alternatively, if profits don’t appear fast enough, you just shut down your operation and move elsewhere. ‘Big Pharma’ has closed down its research programmes into the psychiatric disorders mentioned above precisely because there does not appear to be any immediate prospect of new wonder drugs they can sell.

I don’t agree with every word of this book. As an example, I think I’ve read everything that the late, great Stephen Jay Gould wrote and I don’t recall him ever describing himself as a Marxist, so I’m not sure why the Roses say he was. I also don’t agree with their analysis of the West’s hypocrisy towards Iran’s nuclear programme. We know Iran is building a nuclear bomb precisely because it is developing facilities that are not needed for the civil use of uranium. Nuclear power and nuclear bombs are not the same and it is perfectly possible to have one without the other. The hypocrisy is in a country about to spend billions on renewing its nuclear arsenal at a time of deep cuts in social provision and with a history of providing the bomb to others illegally, now claiming the moral authority to decide who can have the bomb and who can’t.

As I said above this is an angry book but it is not without hope. The people of Iceland defeated the plans of their neoliberal government to sell their entire genome to a private company and the former prime minister of Iceland has since been charged with gross negligence. The family of Henrietta Lacks has won a victory and will be directly involved in any future use of her gene line.

There is much more in this book that will interest, enrage and engage socialists. There are the ethical questions surrounding stem cell research, for example. Should human eggs be commodified and, if they are, how does that change the relationship between the various participants? Richard Titmuss pointed out that the American blood supply, where donations are paid for, doesn’t have the same quality guarantee as in Britain where blood donors are altruistic volunteers.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science and medicine and how they can be used and abused to protect vested interests. I hope comrades will read it and comment on the issues raised by it.


Published by Verso Books

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