Sydney Brenner has always claimed that "Ideas are cheap" but he has also
spent much of his life proving just how valuable some of his own ideas can
become. He may have started life with barely enough money for a train ride
to school in provincial South Africa, but he progressed through his love
of science to become famous, respected and so valuable to medical research
that he could fly on Concorde and send someone else the bill. This year he
shares a Nobel prize with Sir
John Sulston and Robert Horvitz for their work establishing C. elegans
as a model organism for genetic research and then discovering some of
the genetics behind cell replication control and programmed cell death. The
Nobel award is for just one part of Sydney's life's work, his contributions
to science (including some early bioinformatics) are spread over many years
in both public academic science and, less visibly, guiding biotechnology and
pharmaceutical companies in their pursuit of wealth. Sir John is similarly
famous for a variety of contributions to science including, most recently,
The Human Genome Project and his televised exhortations to keep the genome
open for both academic researchers and for exploitation by the World's pharmaceutical
companies for drug development - "Both are needed", commented Sir John at
his first Nobel prize party.
Scientific research takes time, effort, and also significant amounts of
money. Bioinformatics is one of the more applied sciences and it is
particularly dependent on the priorities of funding agencies, venture capitalists
and established businesses. Bioinformatics changes rapidly due to easy communication
via Internet technologies, open source software, the general advances
in the genomics field and because of the way that money is flowing around
biotechnology research. For an individual or a company with an interest in
bioinformatics, it is worthwhile knowing not just the latest research, but
also the financial situation of whichever group is providing you with your
essential software or services.
The harsh world of business and economics has interesting parallels with
biology from its most famous theory: evolution by natural selection, down
to lesser details of organisms and ecosystems corresponding to Ronald Coase's Nobel prize-winning
work on why companies form and how large they can grow. Recently, fraudulent
accounting at Enron and Worldcom has been described by one CEO as a corporate cancer
that cut the growth of both firms, and their accountants Anderson, or more soberly by Alan
Greenspan discussing problems for the whole US economy. Biology is more than a source of metaphors
for economics, and academics have seen different
links before and now offer dual honours courses.
Learning is one thing, however public discussion of business economics in
front of biologists has real dangers as I witnessed when a new director arrived
at Cereon Genomics and organized a whole-site meeting to explain what he
thought we needed to do as a company to be successful: to keep the company
financially secure, and to give our customers what they wanted. Whilst I
sat listening with rapt attention, delighted to be trusted to hear a business
case being openly and honestly explained to me, a girl next to me quietly
remarked, "He is so evil !".
It has been noticed that the returns on investment in the second half of
the 20th century were much better than those in the first half and it
has been concludedthat "innovation accounts for any growth that cannot
be explained by increases in capital or labour". The Economist journal gave
Leroy Hood an award this year for his invention of the fluorescence sequencing
machine, and co-authorship of the 1996 paper "A New Strategy for Genomic Sequencing".
With another award going to Stephen Fodor for his Affymax gene chip work,
it is clear that, The Economist thinks that these bioinformatics-dependent
technologies matter in the real World.
Even introductory courses on retailing economics should stress that the customer is always right. Ultimately, Cereon Genomics was closed down despite its successful work studying natural disease resistance in plants, hard labour from the staff and all the financial clarity of its leaders. The closure was due more to anxieties over a European Union moratorium on new GM crop approvals and consumer perceptions that even properly tested GM food might somehow still be especially dangerous. It is clear that supermarket shoppers are ignorant of the thousands of years of genetic modification and selection that has traditionally fed us all: allopolyploidy is common in commercial crops - wild wheat varieties can be tetraploid or hexaploid, bananas are triploid and the apple (that keeps the doctor away) is actually a genetic fusion of eight pairs of chromosomes from a plum member of the rose family, and nine pairs from Meadowsweet ! For more information on crop genetics maps and bioinformatics see Dicks et al., 2000 or the UK CropNet website.
The most pointed advice that I have heard on bioinformatics and economics
was offered by my boss at Cereon: "Never work for a pure bioinformatics company!".
Now that the Lion Bioscience share price has fallen from €120 to €2,
signalling a billion lost Euros, the advice seems wise. So what's
next ? Sydney Brenner got me and many others interested in all aspects of
partially sequenced cDNAs (before the term EST was invented) but the next
boom may be harder to predict. Looking for other guidance, perhaps, Adam Smith's
invisible hand is pointing in the same direction as Willie Sutton's first
principle of economics: "I rob banks because that is where the money is."
and it has long been obvious how bioinformatics can help increase the efficiency
of the already wealthy pharmaceutical companies. However, following the money
has two different limitations: firstly, much of the best research is precompetitive
and can be done on a shoestring by academics, and secondly, there is a limit
to how much even Americans are prepared to spend on drugs.
Clear examples of excellent precompetitive academic work include the NCBI's Entrez system and the joint EBI/Sanger Institute's ENSEMBL databases. The
NCBI is generously contracted to share with everyone Worldwide and without
charge its great work linking DNA, proteins, publications, and disease databases.
Similarly, the ENSEMBL project has made its highly respected derived
database of the finished genomes available to everyone but also enabled the
databases to be mirrored (not just as flat files) inside each individual
pharmaceutical company saving them all the enormous effort of duplicating
ENSEMBL's calculations and expert editing.
President Bush recently
announced a proposed change in the law to limit how often pharmaceuticals
companies can extend their patents on lucrative drugs to allow cheaper generic
drugs (average $17 per prescription) to replace branded drugs (average $72
per prescription). Pharmaceutical companies typically estimate a drug's worth
by looking at its market in the USA which is bigger and pays more for the
same product than do other economies, even Europe. Both the total GDP of the
USA and the proportion spent on healthcare has been growing since 1945 and
currently exceeds 15% but even here, there must be some limit. The market
is finite and ultimately, everyone will still die, just like before, so it
makes sense to leave some money for other purposes, and ration healthcare
but for now, the money is flowing through the pharmaceutical companies, and
the economics suggests that they should be the most valuable place, in every
sense, to be a bioinformatician.
Written November 2002