June 14, 1973—At the Gordon Research Conference, a private confab of molecular biologists at the New Hampton School in rural New Hampshire, Herbert Boyer’s announcement that he and a colleague had recombined e coli genes with genes from a different organism opened a vast new vista of medical research, signaled the potential of what became a multibillion-dollar industry—and brought to the surface ethical concerns about the emerging field of biotechnology.
I first heard about this discovery in a fascinating volume of historical essays known as Days of Destiny, edited by James M. McPherson and Alan Brinkley. The book concentrates on 31 unheralded but vital days in American history, such as the dinner party held at Thomas Jefferson’s room in Philadelphia that led to the passage of Alexander Hamilton’s economic program, the Dred Scott decision, and the first widespread use of standardized testing. Daniel J. Kovles’ contribution, “The Battle Over Biotechnology,” recounts the troubled beginnings of this field.
The genesis of the idea came six months earlier, at a Honolulu confab on plasmids, or circles of DNA found in bacteria. At the conference, two scientists went to a deli and, while munching over corned-beef sandwiches, also chewed on each other’s ideas: Herbert Boyer, a biochemist and genetic engineer at the University of California at San Francisco, and Stanley Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University.
An enzyme that Boyer had isolated would enable Cohen to use specific DNA segments in plasmids, which in turn could be used to clone precisely targeted strands of DNA. Four months later, the duo had managed to clone predetermined patterns of DNA.
Boyer’s announcement of this collaborative discovery immediately set off sparks among listeners. While many recognized immediately the potential for biomedical medicals, others foresaw the peril that “recombinant DNA” (as it became known) would result in a 20th-century version of Frankenstein’s monster—genetically engineered life from animal or even human genes.
The morning after Boyer’s presentation, on the final day of the meeting, 15 minutes were set aside to discuss the ethical considerations involved in recombinant DNA. This in itself was unusual, given that such meetings were normally confined strictly to science.
But the scientists—many of whom were liberal and understandably guilt-stricken over the role of physicists in the creation of the atomic bomb—initiated a series of discussions and letters among themselves that led to a set of guidelines from the National Institutes of Health that restricted research with recombinant organisms to special containment facilities and ensured that they couldn’t survive if they somehow escaped even these.
Before long, politicians were raising alarms about the potential for abuse, and a number of scientists who had first raised alarms about ethical issues, including James D. Watson, one of the discovers of DNA, began to fear that they had unleashed ignorant, headline-hunting pols in an arena where they didn’t belong. But the potential for medical gains was so enormous that progress could hardly be slowed.
Three years after the Gordon conference, Boyer teamed up with venture capitalist Robert A. Swanson to form Genentech. Subsequent discoveries in the next couple of years, including human insulin and human growth hormone, led the company to become one of the most eagerly snapped up initial public offerings when it hit Wall Street in 1980.
Today, there are more than 1,500 American biotech companies, manufacturing not only insulin and growth hormones but also cancer treatments, an agent to dissolve blood clots in victims of heart attacks, and more. But, as the scientists originally surmised, ethical issues have risen along with advances in health.
In 1999, for instance, Genentech was forced into a settlement with the Food and Drug Administration the FDA for $50 million over charges that it paid doctors to prescribe its human growth hormone, as well as other, "more aggressive activities." And other concerns have come to the fore as well:
1) The patenting of plants and animals, promoting corporate control over a natural heritage.
2) Conflicts of interests created by universities who were financially beholden to biotech companies for research.
3) Genetically modified foods in grocery stores, seen by many as potentially dangerous.
4) “Tinkering” with human life to create, in one nightmare scenario, children made to order.
With All Deliberate Speed
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