Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 14, 2005

Will we take advantage of biotech’s opportunities?

I’ve read with interest Marty Cheek’s recent columns on the biotechnology industry. I believe he’s absolutely on the money when he writes that “Biotech is gonna be big. Really, really big.”

In fact, biotech research is inevitable. But biotechnology (which includes embryonic stem cell research, among others) is also controversial. Most opponents of biotech research, typically those on the anti-abortion end of the political spectrum, have ethical concerns.

Let’s put aside the hypocrisy – of not opposing in vitro fertilization treatments that create thousands of extra embryos stashed in freezers or dumpsters, but fighting research using those same embryos that could save millions of lives – that afflicts many embryonic stem cell research opponents. And, let’s put aside the irony, as Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter put it, of being “in the perverse position of valuing the life of an ailing human being less than that of a tiny clump of cells no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.”

Instead, let’s look at reality.

Reality is that embryonic stem cell research (and all kinds of other biotech research) is inevitable. Perhaps David Ewing Duncan said it best in his book, “The Geneticist Who Played Hoops With My DNA,” which profiles several leading edge biotech scientists: “… Many of the discoveries and possibilities will happen regardless of what society thinks. As in splitting the atom, once the knowledge exists, the science will find a way to happen, possibly in secret in countries where neither ethics nor the public’s fears much matter.”

Reality is that we need to establish scientific and ethical standards for biotech research, to make sure it is done in a responsible, ethical, accountable manner. If we such research is banned, it will go underground and be accountable to no one. It will not go away.

Reality is that South Valley can be a part of the coming biotech boom, if, as Cheek advises, we plan as a region to take advantage of its possibilities, or we can be left in the dust.

Stunning advancements in biotechnology are already taking place in countries without the hesitations from which we’re suffering. Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University, the scientist who led Korea’s headline-generating research, said last week that he believes his team has reached the halfway point in developing medical treatments based on embryonic stem cell research.

Cheek lauds Morgan Hill Mayor Dennis Kennedy’s proposal to use part of the former Saint Louise Hospital facility in Morgan Hill as a biotech incubator. I like the idea of the incubator, but doubt that a facility owned by a Catholic group is the best choice for biotech research. The Vatican is one of the strongest opponents of embryonic stem cell research.

I believe a regional approach also needs an educational component. As South Valley’s cellular phone tower and casino issues demonstrate, too much of the population acts out of fear and ignorance. Cellular phone towers pose no danger, as study after study demonstrates. Similarly, studies from neutral groups show economic and health benefits in communities where tribal casinos open. But fear and ignorance have caused people in South Valley to battle both cell phone towers and casinos.

Stanford molecular biologist Paul Berg is quoted in Duncan’s book on the importance of public understanding of biotechnology: “If the public doesn’t get it, then we’re in trouble, because they may become afraid, and we’ll lose some wonderful things that might benefit people.”

He’s right. For Exhibit A, look at the United States Senate, which tried to ban recombinant DNA out of fear and ignorance in the 1970s. Today, that technology is used to create insulin for diabetics, factor XIII and factor IX for hemophiliacs, human growth hormone, drugs to treat cancer, anemia, blood clots and other ailments, hepatitis B vaccinations, and more.

Let’s put aside ignorance, hypocrisy and fear. Let’s embrace biotechnology as way to improve countless human lives around the globe and a way to improve the standard of living for tens of thousands of people in South Valley.

As the Daily Record in Glasgow, Scotland, editorialized, “You cannot ‘uninvent’ new techniques or dismiss scientific discoveries. But as a society we can decide how to use them to shape our future …”

Will South Valley come together as a community to shape our future or will we let this unique moment in history pass us by?


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