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Biotechnology Luminaries Reflect on the Industry at 25

By Kathy Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted March 17, 1999

Photo: Nobelist James Watson

Keynote speaker and Nobelist James Watson addresses the Biotechnology at 25 Symposium. Peg Skorpinski photo.

Nearly a thousand people came to campus March 13 for a symposium celebrating the birth of the biotechnology industry 25 years ago, when scientific advances made it possible to easily alter DNA sequences.

Talks by James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA's structure, and a dozen other biotech luminaries reflected on what has happened since.

"Before this, we simply could inherit the DNA exactly as it came from our parents," Molecular and Cell Biology Professor Daniel Koshland said in an interview with National Public Radio. "This was a new way of man introducing mutations, which also had been done in various other ways, but a really new powerful way of being able to change the genome."

Resulting medical products range from human insulin and human growth hormone to new therapies for multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and kidney cancer.

The Berkeley symposium probed some of biotech's controversies, for in-stance whether genetically engineered foods should be labeled.

Watson said definitely not.

"I'm opposed because it sounds alarmist," he said. "It caters to people who are crying wolf when there is no evidence a wolf exists."

Berkeley Anthropology Professor Paul Rabinow said the real challenge is to educate fearful people who know little about biotechnology. In one survey, 40 percent of those polled thought "a genetically altered tomato wouldn't have any genes," he said.

On the issue of patenting genes, Public Health Dean Edward Penhoet, co-founder of Chiron Corp., argued that without patents to protect rights to discoveries, research would go underground, thwarting collaboration and slowing medical progress.

But Watson said genes should only be patented rarely, when companies could prove a very specific commercial application. Rabinow preferred no patents.

"Industry should be able to patent therapeutic molecules and tests," he said, "not genes."

No matter who benefits commercially, UC San Francisco Chancellor J. Michael Bishop, a 1989 Nobelist, cautioned against too much timidity in pursuing scientific discovery.

"We as humankind are by instinct explorers," he said. "The ultimate failure of humankind would be to renounce that promise."

Audience reaction to the symposium, organized by The Bancroft Library and UC Extension to kick off Berkeley's new library archive on the biosciences, was enthusiastic.

"I was attracted by James Watson," said Berkeley freshman Kira Smith. "You read about him in textbooks and I wanted to see him. I was impressed."

Berkeley Law Professor Harry Scheiber, also in the audience, said the discussions raised big issues. "Public interest is a very complicated concept," he said. "It's probably at least as complicated as DNA."


March 17 - 30, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 27)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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