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21st Century Science, Part One

#1332 21st CENTURY SCIENCE, Part One.
FEED DATE: November 17, 2005
Ronald Bailey

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(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer, life is our life’s work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

WATTENBERG: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. In the 21st century, scientific advances may help people live longer lives, be smarter, stronger, and even happier. Most every day we hear about designer babies, miracle cures, you name it — thanks mostly to genetic engineering. But despite the promised benefits, some opponents believe science is going too far and should be strictly regulated. Politics intervene. What are the moral and ethical controversies surrounding genetic science? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for ‘Reason Magazine’, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and author of ‘Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution.’ The Topic Before The House: 21st Century Science, Part One. This Week on Think Tank.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ron Bailey, thank you for joining us on Think Tank. We are old friends. If you could give me a brief bio, including the fact that you, I think, were the original producer of this great program, “Think Tank.”

MR. BAILEY: Yes. Hi, Ben. It’s good to be with you again. I’m delighted you had me on the show. And, yes, I was the founding producer of “Think Tank.” I remember it quite fondly.

MR. WATTENBERG: It’s a great show.

MR. BAILEY: It’s a great show, and you’ve only carried it on, and on to better heights.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thirteen years.

MR. BAILEY: But after I left “Think Tank,” I went on to join ‘Reason’ magazine as a science correspondent and I’m writing books on environmental policy and the latest book, which we’re going to be talking about, I understand, Liberation Biology.

MR. WATTENBERG: You were – you have sort of picked up the role of the late Warren Brooks, who used to write – specialize in sort of popular science and a lot of debunking of what’s going on. Is that how you would see yourself?

MR. BAILEY: Well, I can only hope that I’m as good as Warren. He was pretty good.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...he – he was very good.

MR. BAILEY: But to so - there’s some truth to that. What I’d like to do – I think of myself as an explainer. I try to take complicated scientific and ethical and policy problems and make it simple to people.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Ron, let me ask you about some of the new and, to us laypeople, rather amazing scientific developments, which you talk about in your book, and lets go one by one. Longer lifespan.

MR. BAILEY: Well, there’s a lot of exciting research. The truth is that right now there’s nothing proven to extend human life at this point, but there’s a lot of fascinating research.
There’s research, for example, in something called sertuins, which basically are these drug compounds that are being researched currently, that would act as though – that would treat your cells as though they were starving. And what we know is that the only thing that’s proven to keep an animal alive longer is basically to reduce its diet, its calorie intake.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you have a great line in the book, as I recall, where you say it may not really extend your life, but it’ll feel like it will extend your life ‘cause it’s a very rigorous...

MR. BAILEY: It’s a very rigorous diet.


MR. BAILEY: But the thing is - the idea is to be able to create, again, calorie restriction in a pill. And then, in other words, you should be able to eat all the pizza and ice cream you want, take this pill and live 50 percent longer, like the animals who are being starved do at this point. That’s a hope.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yes, it‘s a hope. Number two: genetically designed babies.

MR. BAILEY: Genetically designed babies. Let me give you a case that occurred in Chicago recently. What that is, essentially, right now is called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Basically, what happens is a woman has her eggs fertilized in a Petrie dish and then
checked to see if they have genetic defects. If they do, those are discarded, and the ones without defects are implanted, and her children will grow...

MR. WATTENBERG: You say...

MR. BAILEY: ...and grow up healthy.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...“discarded.” Pro-life people would say “aborted,” but we – we’ll come back to that.

MR. BAILEY: We will come to that.

MR. WATTENBERG: We’ll come to that, yes.

MR. BAILEY: But, for example – let me give a concrete of what I’m talking about. There was a woman in Chicago whose family suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And by “early-onset,” I mean they get it by age 35. And she – her father died of it. She had a brother and sister who were already coming down with it, and at age 28, she and her husband decided that, “We want them to have kids, but we don’t want them to have this problem.” So, she had herself tested and, unfortunately, she has the gene. So, what they did was exactly as I described it. They went and had themselves – they produced eggs. They had them tested to see which ones had the defect, and they removed those. And the good news is they now have three children who will never suffer from that disease.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about genetically designed food, or so-called “Frankenfoods”?

MR. BAILEY: It’s a misnomer, of course. Basically, what we’ve been able to do – or, what scientists have been able to do, is create food varieties that resist pests and resist herbicides, and these are very valuable commodities, because basically you can reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides you use, and it’s very environmentally beneficial.
There have been no – despite the claims that are out there, there’ve been no confirmed results anywhere in the world; there’ve been hundreds of millions of people who’ve eaten these crops, but they – no one has gotten so much as a cough, a sniffle, or bellyache from eating these crops. They are perfectly safe. Yet, of course, a lot of activists are challenging them.

MR. WATTENBERG: But there’s no proof that they’re safe. I mean you might have to wait a hundred years to prove that, as you point out.

MR. BAILEY: Well, but, of course, the problem is – think about it this way. These technologies - we’re taking one or two genes and putting them into a plant. We know exactly where they go. But think about it this way. Of the crop varieties out there that we currently use that are not genetically modified, there’re over 1,500 varieties that were created using massive amounts of radiation and chemicals, and we eat those plants and have been eating them since the 1920s and ‘30s, when they were invented.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about the eradication of specific diseases? Where are we? What is it – what’s the prognosis?

MR. BAILEY: Let’s take cancer, for example, which is, of course, a concern that people have, that as we all get older your chances of getting cancer continue to grow. There are now a variety of cancer vaccines that are being developed. Sad to say that right now probably the most effective one has been invented by a company called SiBiono, which is in Shanghai, China. They’re using a technology developed in the United States but they can move it much more rapidly through their regulatory system and it’s been approved. And, basically, it turned out this particular anti-cancer vaccine seems to be a wide-spectrum one. It works for head-and-neck cancers, for colon cancers, for ovarian cancers, for...

MR. WATTENBERG: But – but...

MR. BAILEY: ...lung cancer.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...but, Ron, I – there’s something I don’t understand when I read some of these articles. A vaccine, in theory, is something you give somebody a shot in the arm before they get disease – before they get a disease.

MR. BAILEY: Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: What some of these articles are talking about are a vaccine which treats a disease. What are you talking about?

MR. BAILEY: Well, it’s the latter. It’s a vaccine that treats a disease. And I think what - they’re calling it a vaccine is – is that it is a - if you will, after the fact, mobilizing a person’s immune system to attack cancer cells. Part of the reason we have an immune system is for the purpose of preventing cancer. What’s interesting with regard to the SiBiono vaccine is that it’s what is called a P53 vaccine. It turns out that most cancers have a defect in this pathway called the P53 gene pathway. And what this does is replace and repair that pathway. It replaces the defective gene, and then this pathway tells the cancer cell, “Kill yourself. Die. Go away”, which is what it’s supposed to do. So, it’s basically repairing the damage that caused you to have cancer in the first place.

MR. WATTENBERG: Generally speaking, you are, with all the appropriate caveats, you are an optimist about this modern biotech science.

MR. BAILEY: Yes, I’m very definitely an optimist.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Now, give us, if you would, the opposing sides in the ethical debates surrounding biotechnology, or bioengineering. Are they ideological, or religious, or commercial? And most specifically, there are people who are actually, it seems to me, preaching death.
A couple of decades ago, the governor of Colorado, Richard Lamb, was saying we have a, quotes, “a duty to die.” So, how do you deal wit that?

MR. BAILEY: Well, a couple things. One is that I have identified – and biotechnology has brought this out – there’s a weird, strange-bedfellows kind of coalition going on here between the left and the right.
On the one hand, you have long-time a - left-wing, anti-biotech activists – Jeremy Rifkin – writing editorials in the Los Angeles Times with Bill Krystol, who’s the conservative editor of ‘The Weekly Standard’, and they both oppose certain kinds of biotechnological progress that I’m in favor of. And so, basically, what you have, they, the left and right, they oppose it for different reasons, but they come to the same conclusion. The left opposes it because, as usual, they’re afraid the rich will get the technologies first, and we certainly don’t want that.

MR. WATTENBERG: As if there are some things in the world that the rich don’t get first and the – yes, go ahead.

MR. BAILEY: And the right opposes it because these - things like longer life, for example, or genetically designing your children offend their notions of what’s proper – the proper shape of a human life. And so we end up with both of them, for different reasons, coming together to oppose these technologies.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ron, explain for us – for our viewers in brief and simple language, if you can, what is stem cell research? What are we talking about?

MR. BAILEY: Well, there are three kinds of stem cells. There’s the adult stem cells, which you – which our bodies – seed our bodies and create the cells that we – that are – replace our skin, for example. That – those have stem cells. And that’s not controversial.


MR. BAILEY: Then there are umbilical cord stem cells. They’re the ones that are derived from the umbilicas of babies, which are also not controversial. The ones that are controversial are the ones that are derived from embryos - right now in the United States - from embryos typically left over from fertility treatments that are donated by people who’ve completed their families and have decided, “Well, we want to do this.”

MR. WATTENBERG: When you do fertile -- an implantation, you may implant five or six sperm cells, I guess, and then when you see that two or three have actually implanted, you discard, so called – the other word, which is an uptown word for “aborting” it. I mean that’s -- so the pro-life people say.

MR. BAILEY: Well, the pro-life people would say that.


MR. BAILEY: I would like to suggest to you another way of looking at that, though. I don’t know if you know this, but 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos never implant. Yeah, 80 percent. And I think that we should think about that. We don’t have an embryonic monitoring system whereby we make sure that every one of those are rescued and put back.

MR. WATTENBERG: These are not miscarriages, but the...

MR. BAILEY: They never...

MR. WATTENBERG: ...the parents may...

MR. BAILEY: ...implant.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...may never even know about it.

MR. BAILEY: Right. And I think that we have to think of embryos at that very early stage as very different.

MR. WATTENBERG: And – and what – if we captured this technology, what – what might it do for us?

MR. BAILEY: Well, for example, again, embryonic stem cells – focusing on those – there’s something called “therapeutic cloning,” where you would take one of your skin cells, put it into an enucleated egg, grow it to 150 cells as an embryo, remove the inner cell mass, and then you’ll have 50 cells, say.
What’s great about those cells is they perpetually reproduce. They reproduce. They keep going forever and ever and ever, so long as you feed them nutrients. And then you can take a portion of those cells and try – if you need a heart – if you had a heart attack and you had heart – damaged heart muscle, you could take some of those cells, turn them into heart muscle cells, install them in your body and repair your heart. Or, if you had a problem with your liver, you could ha -- you might even grow a whole new liver. Or, again, if you broke your back.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...by...

MR. BAILEY: So, there...

MR. WATTENBERG: ...implanting...

MR. BAILEY: ...but, you know...

MR. WATTENBERG: ...the cell...

MR. BAILEY: ...one thing further that’s important about this is that these cells are immunological matches. You would not have to use rejection drugs. They are perfect transplants...

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, there – there’ve been – there’s been a recent paper that says we might get embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo. Would that change the dialogue?

MR. BAILEY: Ultimate -- two ways to approach this. One is that the – embryonic stem cell research, the idea is eventually to come – is not to use that technique to create transplants. Basically, it’s the research to be able to take one of your skin cells and dose it with just the right chemicals to turn it into a heart cell, or a neuron, or something like that. And so the research is – on embryos at this point is for that purpose, and we’re not able to do that yet.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...this whole thing – I guess the – the famous book, this topic, we – the opposite of utopian was Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, where, using this – these biological techniques, you make a world that is a catastrophe. I mean that’s...

MR. BAILEY: Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...the linear development of – of this idea.

MR. BAILEY: Well, but – you know, I mean the “brave, new world” is a top-down, totalitarian hellhole. There’s no question about that. And I should point out that any of the technologies you look at, they’re – none of them are genetic. These technologies are all environmental. Basically, what you’re doing is you’re taking normal embryos, dosing them with chemicals – radiation, alcohol – and making them into demented slaves.
Look at what we’re trying to do with this technology – is to make people healthier, live longer, be smarter. It’s the exact opposite of ‘Brave New World’.

MR. WATTENBERG: On all of these things hasn’t the train already left the station when you have this newly formed World Stem Cell Foundation, which includes scientists from South Korea, which is a big player in this; Great Britain; United States, or various states of the United States? Is there any way we can turn this off?

MR. BAILEY: Well, I hope there’s no way we can turn this off. The – the problem I see is that, in a certain sense, I believe you’re correct, that the technologies and these pr -- and progress in this area is inevitable, but the problem is is that there are these people – the bioconservatives, like Frank Fukuyama, or Daniel Callahan, or Leon Kass, who are trying to slow that train down. And the problem I have with that is is that it makes a lot of difference if you discover the cure for cancer in 2010, or if you discover it in 2020. There’ll be tens of millions...


MR. BAILEY: ...of people who die in the interim, and by – and I think – I have to say I think it is immoral that people like Kass and Fukuyama and Callahan are trying to slow that train down. They’re endangering the lives of millions of people.

MR. WATTENBERG: Question: should parents be allowed to choose the sex of their children? In other words, you do a sonogram and you see that the child is a girl, and you want a boy, so you abort – or, vice versa. And there was one – one particular case where a deaf couple wanted to use bioengineering not to create a hearing child, but they wanted to purposefully create what we would regard as a disability, namely deafness, so they could have one, nice, happy family of deaf people. What do you think of that?

MR. BAILEY: I think that it’s morally reprehensible for them to do that. I would not make it illegal for them to do that, because I don’t think the government should be in the – the guise of telling people what genes they can and cannot have. If it had been a - in this particular case, actually, you’re describing a case of a - a deaf, lesbian couple. They were going to a sperm bank, asking for donor sperm from someone who was deaf. All the sperm banks they went to told them, “No. That’s exactly what we select against. We’re not going to do that.”
And so they eventually found a friend who was deaf, who helped them out with that, and they did have a child who was born, who was deaf.
But, again, as reprehensible as I think that is, I don’t think we want the government, again, telling people whether or not they can have children and what kind of children they can have.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ron, what about the neuropharmaceuticals that are on the horizon now, enhancing memory, boosting intelligence, elevating mood? Some critics say medicine should just be used for healing.

MR. BAILEY: Well before any of the genetic technologies we’re talking about are actually used in therapies, these drugs, and better drugs, will be available. There are a lot of companies, for example, that are working now on memory drugs that will probably be in the market in five years or so. As you get older, you’re less able to keep things in the front of your mind as you – as you used to have, and these drugs will be able to...

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean this...

MR. BAILEY: ...do that.

MR. WATTENBERG: ...this would, in effect, be a cure or remedy for something like Alzheimer’s.

MR. BAILEY: It would be along that path...exactly. It would be a great help along those lines.
And then there – you know, there are the drugs that are coming down a little further down the line that seem to be able to boost intelligence, the – the actual sheer processing power that you might have, in order to understand problems.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ron, let me ask a series of questions that – that are – sort of all deal with the unintended consequences of these – these – bioengineering. What about genetic enhancements for athletes? I’m not talking about steroids.

MR. BAILEY: Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is that cheating?

MR. BAILEY: Look at it this way. Well, first of all, the genetic enhancement we’re talking about was developed by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Well, what he’s doing is he’s found a way to insert a gene that will resist muscle wasting. And the reason he’s doing the research is for older folks, whose muscles decline as they get older. You’ll be able to put those genes in and prevent the -- them from falling, and – and so it’s really a cure for them, and they’ve been able to show this in mice, and they think they’ll have no problem with humans.
The problem is, and I have this vision, using this technology, of course, if it works for old people, it’ll work for young people. And it will. And so people are fr- -- afraid that Olympic athletes or baseball players will want to use the technology, and I have no doubt that they will want to use it. And I had this vision where the sporting leagues say, “It’s illegal. You can’t do that.” And so you have the – the – the guys on the field playing, and the – and the – and the – and the old geezers are more muscular, in the stands, who are watching them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Already you see classified ads, people looking for sperm or egg donors from a beautiful movie star, or a heavyweight boxing champion. I mean it’s – it’s – as I said, the – the train has already left the station.

MR. BAILEY: The train has left the station.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Now, what about one we hear about, which would be a person goes in for a job interview and is asked about his genetic markers, what he – is he likely to get diabetes? Is he likely to do this? Is that fair?

MR. BAILEY: There are – there are going to be some problems, because what will happen is that these type of genetic tests will come along faster than the ways to correct them, and so we have to be careful about how they get used in situations like employment.
On the flip side of it is I – I, for one, would want to go in and have a complete screen of all my genes, so that I would know what I’m likely to be suffering from and maybe take some proactive steps. Like, for example, if I discovered that I was likely to get a particular kind of cancer, I might eat my vegetables more than I do currently. Or, if I were subject to heart disease, I might start taking statin drugs earlier and try to prevent that.
So, again, there’ll be some transitional problems, but I think, for the most part, people will find it an enormous benefit.

MR. WATTENBERG: Alright. There’s a – there’s another problem, which is if people live longer and longer and we have this tremendous monster trend going on with lower and lower fertility rates and the number of babies born per woman over the course of her life – lifetime, won’t these longer lifespans just exacerbate that situation?

MR. BAILEY: You’ve put your finger on something that’s very interesting. You’re probably right about that. As you well know, the truth is is that the countries that have the longest life expectancy are precisely those countries that have the lowest ex -- fertility rates, the fewest children per woman over the course of their life, and that might be a problem.

MR. WATTENBERG: The fertility rates are coming down. In every country...

MR. BAILEY: No, they are coming down...

MR. WATTENBERG: ...they’re slowing down.

MR. BAILEY: ...in every country, but – but also be – well, look, as – as you know the average life expectancy in 1900 on the planet was about 30, and it’s now 66 on the planet. So, life expectancies have been going up, on average, for everybody; not just the richest people in the developing countries, but for poor people, too. And it’s – there’s some tre -- and you’re right; as those life expectancies have up, fertility trends have gone down.
On the other hand, we don’t force people to have kids merely because we think it’s good for society. We might try to entice them to do it...


MR. BAILEY: ...but we’re not going to start forcing them to do it.

MR. WATTENBERG: You’ve written a book about biological science and how politics and science intersect, but there’re some examples that you don’t mention. And let’s ask a few of those quickly. So-called global warming. The advocates say it’s, quotes, “settled science.” Now, what do you think?

MR. BAILEY: I think it is settled science that human beings are contributing to a warming trend that’s been going on for the last 30 to 40 years or so. Yes, that is correct, but – but the percent - there’s a huge “but” here, the problem is that – how big a trend is it? Is it a disaster? Is it a catastrophe in the making? And I don’t think the evidence supports that scenario. It is something that we clearly have to watch out for, but again, the – the notion that it’s a catastrophe just isn’t on - in the science. I remind people, back in the 1970s, there were articles pointing out that sea ice had been expanding for – for three or four decades, and it was now much further south, down to Newfoundland and below Iceland and so forth, and it hadn’t been seen – seen that way for centuries – which is not to deny that there aren’t trends that are somewhat worrying, but there’s no disaster or catastrophe out...


MR. BAILEY: ...there.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just close this – this section. I mean a lot of these things have become sort of purposeful, political – I – I think – purposeful, symbolic, political exaggeration. In the old days, on the left and the right, it used to be called – quotes – “lying for justice.” Do you think it’s purposeful what the – the – the sorts of – it does seem as if we’re getting a lot more of it these days than we used to.

MR. BAILEY: We are getting a lot more of it these days, and I think it’s for the following reason: in a secular, pluralistic society – a liberal, secular, pluralistic society like ours, we only have one source of authority left, and that’s science. And so, basically, what everybody does on any particular issue is try to capture science and say, “Science says you should adopt our policy, not their policy.” And so everybody has thoroughly politicized science, and I think that’s a desperate problem that we have.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thanks, Ron Bailey, we’ll leave it at that for now and pick it up on a subsequent episode. And thank you. Please, remember to send us your comments via e-mail. We think it makes our program better. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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