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Good Speakers, Good Company At Biotechnology Conference

By Pey-Hua Hwang


I arrived in Kresge Auditorium Saturday at 8:50 a.m. -- an absurdly early hour for an MIT student -- to update that database also known as my brain on the changing field of biotechnology at this year’s Conference on Biotechnology, sponsored by MIT and Harvard’s Hippocratic societies.

The conference was composed of a mixture of lectures, panel discussions, and smaller seminars. Some of the more memorable speakers included Dr. Robert S. Langer, Dr. Sheila Jasanoff, Dr. Fritz Bach, Dr. Lee Silver, and Dr. Phillip Campbell, editor of Nature. The highlight of the conference for me was Saturday’s banquet, where I got to speak informally to many of the featured speakers.

Ideas, ethics, and Frankenstein

Langer, Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at MIT as well as the only person to serve on all three of the National Academies (Engineering, the Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine) gave the opening speech of the two-day conference.

Langer spoke about his involvement in the creation of various time-release drug delivery systems and the resistance he met from the scientific community. He introduced several concepts that would be echoed throughout the rest of the conference; most notably, the difficulty in moving ideas from the laboratory to the market. “Scientists oppose new ideas too,” he said.

Langer’s technical speech was followed by two presentations, both discussing fears and opposition to technology from different angles.

Justin Gillis, a Washington Post reporter covering the biotechnology industry, discussed how lack of information often predisposed the public to fear new technology. As someone without an extensive scientific background, Gillis said, he felt he could act as a “translator” for the general public.

“Public fear of new technology often overshadows reality,” Gillis said. However, he also drew a comparison between scientific hubris versus science. Gillis emphasized the need to exercise caution so that there wouldn’t be a backlash like the one described in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Calestous Juma, Director of the Science, Technology, and Innovation Program at the Center for International Development at Harvard University, discussed bioethics and the role of new biotechnology in developing countries. “How do you make science serve the goals of humanity?” he asked. Both Gillis and Juma fielded questions from an audience comprised of approximately 75 students and faculty.

With over 450 people pre-registered, Kresge Auditorium, however, seemed almost empty. “There were transportation issues,” said Harvard student Shashank S. Sinha ’04.

A bit of this and a bit of that

In contrast to the morning, Saturday afternoon included small group seminars as well as panels of speakers and covered subjects from gene patenting to patient care.

MIT Professor of Molecular Biology Jonathan A. King kicked off the afternoon with a thought-provoking talk about gene patenting. He said that “products of nature should be outside the patent system” and that the current system caused an “enormous redundancy of efforts” within the academic community due to delaying publishing results while waiting for patent applications to go through.

King felt that this “profound reversal of openness” was a hindrance to progress in a field that could ultimately hold such possibilities for saving human lives. When he opened for questions at the end of his talk it seemed almost like a moderated debate about company profits versus moral obligations.

Slack livens up the afternoon

So, after four speakers all speaking on very serious topics, I found it refreshing to hear the anecdotes that Dr. Warner V. Slack, the co-president of the Center for Clinical Computing and Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School presented during a panel discussion titled “Changing the Face of Patient Care.”

In grand storytelling style, he told about his creation of an interactive computer program to obtain basic patient information. The program was replete with humorous responses to patient input and choices for answering multiple choice questions like “none of your damn business” and “skip it.” He advocated “Patient Power” and even seemed a bit miffed when forced to use a microphone, claiming that his voice projected fine on its own.

MIT Professor of Economics Jeffrey E. Harris also presented his perspective on the “Medicalization of life.” He presented several case studies to try and point out that it was impossible to match every disorder with some sort of technological treatment.

Dinner, dessert, and debate

Following a long day of information osmosis I was more than ready for the banquet where I would get to eat and talk to some of the speakers on an informal basis.

This banquet, if you could call a gathering of approximately 50 people sitting in Lobdell eating catered food buffet style a banquet, was definitely what I felt was the highlight of the conference, but not because of the food.

Not knowing anyone at the banquet and having spoken briefly to Slack earlier, I asked to sit by him and found myself seated at the table that included almost all of speakers who chose to attend the banquet -- most notably speaker of the banquet, Jasanoff, a professor of science and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as Campbell, the conference’s keynote closing speaker.

I found it very amusing that as the dinner ended the reporter from The Harvard Crimson made the mistake of attempting to ask Campbell about his thoughts on the conference so far, when Campbell had just flown in and just arrived in time for dinner. Sitting at the table with him I avoided this embarrassment.

However, as amusing as this incident was it was overshadowed by Jasanoff’s articulate debating skills. In a speech titled, “Leading or Lagging?: Strange encounters of Law and Biotechnology,” she said that the perception that the law is in a never-ending game of catch-up to the advances of science is untrue. In reality, she said, science and government actually work in conjunction each furthering the development of the other.

Many students disagreed with Jasanoff’s viewpoint and each speaker was subsequently humbled. Jasanoff summarized the robustness of the law stating, “law is often questioning when is something just an incremental change or when is something a radical break.”

The conference continues

Once again dealing with the jet lag created by the return from MIT time to the schedule of the rest of the world, Sunday began bright and early at 8:30 a.m. when I grabbed a donut from the conference continental breakfast and headed towards MIT’s 10-250 to hear Dr. Barry Einstein, the vice president of the Office of Science and Technology at Harvard Medical School.

After Einstein’s speech about the relationship between academic versus corporate research, I was able to have him comment further on his support of academic researchers being able to profit from their discoveries. He said, “You can have your cake and eat it too ... if done properly the transfer of technology benefits all sides ... it benefits society, and brings value to the investigator.” He did add, though, that there needed to be boundaries so that there wouldn’t be conflict of interest issues.

Monkeys and melodrama

Silver, Bach, Dr. Sheldon Kimsky, and Chair of the National Institutes of Health recombinant DNA Advisory Committee Claudia Mickelson inspired both laughter and debate. Silver, professor in biology, ecology, and neuroscience at Princeton University, went so far as to put a picture of his son next to a monkey up during his presentation as he spoke about the future of gene technology. Bach, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, spoke about the need for an “informed public.”

Krimsky, founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics and professor at Tufts University, then spoke the need to modify patent law, while Mickelson defended those regulations that had been implemented. “We hear extremes ... what we don’t hear is active robust discussion by the people who are going to be living with these technologies,” Mickelson said.

Aimee L. Smith, a graduate student at MIT, had very strong opinions about the topics covered and argued with the speakers during the question and answer session until asked to step aside. When asked why she felt so strongly she responded, “I think that there are a lot of underlying assumptions defined by corporate interests ... things are always political whether we choose to look at that aspect or not,” and that “there seems to be a lack of perspective in the field.”

All weekends must end

The conference closed with Campbell’s closing address entitled, “Voyages in Spinland.” Campbell traced a “brief history of spin” through the subtle mudslinging that occurred in the race to sequence the human genome between Celera and the Human Genome Project.

After his talk, beating out The Crimson and various other journalists, I was able to catch him to take a few questions before he had to run to catch his flight. He said that he would like “an appreciation of how information and misinformation gets circulated” to be what stuck with listeners. His opinion of the conference in general was pretty much in line with my own: “I enjoyed the talks.