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Biotech juggernaut: hope, hype, and hidden agendas

Review by Louise Sales

"Biotechnology's history is marred by ethical abuses, clinical failures, hidden agendas, false promises, hype, and private bonanzas snatched at public expense."

‒ Stevens and Newman, Biotech Juggarnaut, 2019

In Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial BioScience, Tina Stevens and Stuart Newman explore what could lie ahead if we leave the philosophical and ethical debates about the use of emerging biotechnology techniques to scientists. This compelling book is a welcome counter to the uncritical, breathless hype that usually accompanies discussions of biotechnology in what remains of our science media.

In recent years the biotechnology industry has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry – worth more than $417 billion globally in 2018. In a series of case studies – which include human cloning, human genome editing and synthetic biology – Stevens and Newman reveal how the industry has an almost bottomless war chest it can dip into to further its commercial agenda. This has distorted important societal debates about if – and under what conditions – we should be pursuing these technologies.

Biotechnology scientists can no longer be viewed as impartial pursuers of knowledge. As science journalist Tom Abate observed: "When we spliced the profit gene into academic culture, we created a new organism – the recombinant university. We reprogrammed the incentives that guide science. The rule in academe used to be "publish or perish." Now bioscientists have an alternative "patent and profit."

Many biotechnology scientists have direct commercial interests in the technologies they are developing through start-up companies and patents. According to science reporter Neil Munro, "these supposedly objective scientists have business interests that overlap with their scientific views." Munro believes the problem lies with the media "which almost never informs its readers that these supposedly disinterested scientists have great financial stakes in the debate."

And yet, through their direct roles on advisory panels; through political donations and lobbying; and through well-resourced PR campaigns these scientists are dictating government policy on these technologies. This includes both how – or even if – they are regulated, and how much public funding goes in to supporting this work. This Stevens and Newman hope will change: "In describing perceived and real conflicts of interest in the biotechnology industry, we hope to spark needed conversation about who should be the gatekeepers and framers of public discussion. … Currently, bioentrepreneurs themselves too often monopolize this important role."

The Road to Gattaca?

"The GenRich…carry synthetic genes. All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry and the knowledge industry are controlled by…the GenRich class…Naturals work as low paid service providers or as laborers [Eventually] the GenRich class and the Natural class will become entirely separate species…with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

‒ Lee Silver, bioentrepreneur, Professor Molecular Biology, Princeton University, 1997

Biotech Juggarnaut explores some of the more troubling aspects of the rise of bio-entrepreneurialism. These include cloning, "three parent" embryos, gene editing, synthetic genome creation and human-animal embryonic combination. According to Stevens and Newman: "In the U.S. and around the globe, public opinion demonstrates pervasive revulsion at the prospect of genetically modifying the human species. Yet, industry-led discussion leaves the door wide open to normalizing just that."

In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui drew almost universal ire from the scientific community when he claimed to have produced the world's first genetically modified (GM) babies using the new GM technique CRISPR. He's announcement was made on the eve of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong.

In the wake of He's bombshell, several scientists, including the CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang and the stem-cell biologist Paul Knoepfler justifiably called for a moratorium on similar experiments. In sharp contrast, the organisers of the Hong Kong summit – which includes representatives of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a statement claiming that:

"The organizing committee concludes that the scientific understanding and technical requirements for clinical practice remain too uncertain and the risks too great to permit clinical trials of germline editing at this time. Progress over the last three years and the discussions at the current summit, however, suggest that it is time to define a rigorous, responsible translational pathway toward such trials."

Wrapped up in this statement is the blatant implicit – and highly questionable – assumption that genetically modifying humans is an inevitable and broadly desirable goal.

Biotech Juggernaut discusses the appalling history of the eugenics movement, which led to the forcible sterilisation of tens of thousands of US citizens deemed unfit to reproduce (a disproportionate number of them Black women and Latinas), right up through the 1970s. The authors warn that: "The anticipated genetic revolution could, if left unguided by moral reflection and unlimited by ethical boundaries, encourage a science-spurred version of the same eugenic outcome."

This potential misuse of new genetic engineering techniques is also clearly of concern to CRISPR inventor Jennifer Doudna. She recounts a chilling dream she had in which Adolph Hitler wanted to learn more about CRISPR, presumably to use it for eugenics.

Human germline modification raises a raft of serious safety, social, and ethical concerns. These range from the prospect of irreversible harms to the health, wellbeing and identity of children and future generations, to concerns about opening the door to new forms of social inequality, discrimination, and conflict. This is exactly why we shouldn't be letting scientists alone write the rules on what kind of research is ethically acceptable.

Synthetic biology

Biotech Juggernaut also discusses the emerging field of synthetic biology where synbio entrepreneurs seek to create life using computer designed or artificial DNA. As one synthetic biologist characterised it, theoretically bacteria in a vat can now be genetically modified to create anything traditionally harvested from a plant.

However, this raises profound ethical issues. As Stevens and Newman observe: "Such hijacking of microbial processes is resulting in vast fortunes for many biocorporations in the industrial north. But for traditional guardians of plant-based economies, chiefly farming and peasant societies in the global south, synthetic biology as practiced destroys livelihoods and communities."

Biotech Juggernaut highlights the importance of society as a whole participating in discussions and decisions about how – and even if – we use new technologies and how they should be regulated. Instead, the very individuals who seek to commercialise dangerous new GM techniques are being allowed to write the rules about how and if they are regulated.

Biotech Juggernaught: Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial BioScience by Tina Stevens and Stuart Newman is published by Routledge.

Biotech Juggernaut is published by Routledge,

Louise Sales coordinates Friends of the Earth's Emerging Tech Project.

Published in Chain Reaction #139, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, May 2021.

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