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Francis Collins, Reconciling God and Science Pt. 2


DNA the genetic code that defines our bodies and our lives has been the focus of Dr. Francis Collins work. As head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health and as an internationally renowned scientist, Dr. Collins and his team successfully mapped the entire human genome. Francis Collins is a Christian of great religious faith and the author of the best selling book entitled ďThe Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.Ē The topic before the house: Reconciling God and Science. This week on Think Tank.



BEN WATTENBERG:
Dr. Francis Collins, welcome back to Think Tank. How did you become involved in the Human Genome Project? Youíve become one of the-- leading lights globally-- of it. And-- and Iíve always sort of wondered-- what do you do all day? What is a-- what is a sci-- I mean, you donít mess around with test tubes. What does your workday look like?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
I have the best job in science, Ben. I got into The Genome Project as a physician, as a geneticist, hoping that if we actually can read all these letters of all the code, we could apply that for medical benefit. What I do all day is, in part, to oversee some of these large, complex, international projects that aim to unravel not only the letters of the code, but how they work, as quickly as possible.
BEN WATTENBERG:
At-- at the National Institutes of Health.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
At the NIH, right. I-- I am the director of the Genome Institute. This is the countryís major investment in research on the human genome.
BEN WATTENBERG:
How many people are in your division or in your--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
About 600 people-- work in my institute. And we have a budget, provided by the taxpayers-- every year, of about $500 million which Iím responsible for trying to make sure we spend in the most wise, thoughtful, productive way possible. And most of that is by giving grants to the institutions around the country that are in the best position to do the work.

To Harvard, to Stanford, to MIT-- to Washington University. To all these places that have built great strength in this field of genomics. But it is, sort of, my job to be the field marshal. To be sure that weíre thinking ahead about what do we need to do next to prepare for that. Recruit the best and brightest scientists of this generation to work on these projects. And then try to make sense out of the data, get it published, make sure the dataís made accessible to people who need it. All of those things. In addition, I--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Are-- are there cures that have come from the genome yet?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
I think there are people whoís lives have been saved-- because of the study of the genome. The most-- most of the promise, though, still lies ahead of us. But if you look at a circumstance-- take colon cancer, which we didnít used to be able to make a very good guess about whoís at highest risk. In families that have a lot of this disease, we can now very accurately figure out who is at the very highest risk, get them into a screening program with colonoscopy starting at a very early age.

And we know we save peopleís lives that way. By picking up those polyps. Getting them out of there before they turn into a cancer. We know in certain instances, drugs that have been developed based upon understanding the genome, are saving lives in cancer in particular. Particularly leukemias, for instance. Where drugs that are based upon a rational understanding of exactly whatís wrong in the genome of a leukemia cell have now cured people who otherwise wouldíve died.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and as you say, this is just the beginning.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Just the beginning. The big payoff is ten, 15 years away.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Where does-- do stem cells fit into that?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Stem cells are really not part of genome research, but theyíre part of medical research and theyíre controversial so they tend to, sort of, fall in my lap, too.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- what-- what is your view of it? That we ought to-- proceed on the research?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
So I think one thing we ought to do is, sort of, tone down the rhetoric and try to get our scientific facts straight. So stem cells-- thereís lots of different kinds of stem cells. The kind that I think many people are most concerned about are the ones that are derived from a human embryo which is produced by a sperm and an egg coming together. The way you and I got here.

There are hundreds of thousands of those embryos currently frozen away in in vitro fertilization clinics. And it is absolutely unrealistic to imagine that anything will happen to those other than theyíre eventually getting discarded. So as much as I think human embryos deserve moral status, it is hard to see why itís more ethical to throw them away than to take some that are destined for discarding and do something that might help somebody.
BEN WATTENBERG:
So-- so you would disagree with the-- poli-- current political executive branch view of that. I mean, President Bush is against that.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
I have to be careful here because I am a member of the executive branch as a-- government employee.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Thatís-- thatís why Iím asking the question.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
But as a scientist-- I would say we are currently not making as much progress as we could if we had access to more of these stem cell lines. The ones that are currently available for federal funding is a very limited set and they clearly have flaws that make them hard to use. But you know what? I think that kind of stem cell research is actually not the part thatís going to be most interesting.

The part thatís really showing the most promise is to take a skin cell from you or me and convince that cell, which has the complete genome, to go back in time and become capable of making a liver cell or a brain cell or a blood-- cell if you need it to. That reprogramming. Thatís called semantic cell nuclear transfer in the current mode. And yet people still refer to those products as an embryo. Well, thereís no sperm and egg involved here.

And thatís where I think weíve really gotten muddled. That the distinction between these various types of biology has been all merkified. And people are beginning to argue in very irrational ways based on a lack of understanding what the science says. If we could back off from all of the, sort of, hard edged rhetoric and really say, okay, what is science teaching us, I suspect that the moral dilemmas are not nearly as rough as people think they are.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Is the-- genome-- exploitable by commerce? In other words, I guess your colleague-- Craig Ventner, was the-- the principle in this. But if private companies develop parts of the genome, and they can patent it and they can sell things-- sell-- S-E-L-L, not C-E-L-L-- they can-- sell and make a profit from what God created. Is that-- is that an accurate description of the situation? And do you approve it? Or, if you donít approve it, is there any other way around it?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
So patenting is really a legal construct. Itís often thought of as a moral construct. And I think there is some of that going on. But why do we have patents? We have patents because our founding fathers, particularly Benjamin Franklin, concluded that if you wanted to see products developed that the public needs, that you have provide the inventor with a limited monopoly so that they can develop that product and sell it, and not have a competitor take their market away the next day. Thatís the whole logic here. It wasnít really to make inventors rich. It was to benefit the public. So you can ask the question with the genome, does that fit?
BEN WATTENBERG:
Well, it-- it was to make them rich, but to-- provide an incentive that they do work that helps mankind.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Exactly. But the helping mankind was really the point and if the inventors got rich as a means to getting there, well thus, so be it. The genome, on the other hand, this very fundamental, basic information-- most of which we donít understand-- is not a product. Itís not even close to a product. The position I have had held, as has the entire Human Genome Project international community, is that the genome information, therefore, ought to be in the public domain. Thatís a different view that some of the--
BEN WATTENBERG:
And is-- is it now global-- itís globally available, isnít it?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Absolutely. And we did-- we made every effort to be sure that was the case. We put all of the data on the internet every 24 hours. We didnít even wait to look at it. It just went up there. It became prior art. And so all of the gold rush to claim parts of the genome back in the 1990s is over because itís all in the public domain, thanks to The Human Genome Project.

But there are patents that got issued-- during that interim period and a lot of human genes have claims upon them. And frankly, thatís kind of getting in the way. Thereís this thicket of patents on very basic information which, in my view, never shouldíve been allowed. Which are not inhibiting rather than providing an incentive for development.
BEN WATTENBERG:
But-- but let me play devilís advocate for a minute.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Please.
BEN WATTENBERG:
If somebody, say a doctor or somebody, or a biologist, comes up with a mechanism or a drug or something that cures the X, Y, Z form of cancer, he is entitled to make a deal with a-- a drug company and say market it. And this is, again, on terms of the patents and incentives-- to-- get that disseminated globally.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Absolutely. And-- and Iím glad you put it in those terms. íCause--
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and-- so thatís okay.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
That is totally okay.
BEN WATTENBERG:
So-- so why is that any different from-- from patenting a different kind of cure which is something that has to do with-- the genome?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Itís not whether it has to do with the genome. Itís whether what is being patented is actually, at least, on the path towards a product that the public is going to benefit from. As opposed to just saying this is my territory. I donít know what this stuff is, but it might be useful some day. So youíre gonna have to pay me if you come back and discover something about it.

Itís really where are you on this road from basic discovery to product. I think patents ought to be restricted for fairly far down that road. Because thatís where the incentive is needed to provide a-- a-- an ability for an inventor to actually put, maybe, hundreds of millions of dollars into making a drug.
BEN WATTENBERG:
So you--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
You donít need it at the early stage.
BEN WATTENBERG:
So youíre saying is that the life of a patent ought to be extended. And instead of 17 years, maybe 30 year-- no, no?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
No, I wouldnít say that. Well, take-- okay, I-- Iím working on a gene-- that-- is associated with diabetes. I have a research lab that works on that. That gene has a patent on it that was filed ten years ago.
BEN WATTENBERG:
The diabetes thing, right?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
But they didnít know it had anything to do with diabetes ten years ago. It was just a random gene discovered in the human genome. And somebody said, 'I claim that.' Now, I would like to get a drug company, now that Iíve discovered it has to do with diabetes, to work on using that as a drug target. And theyíre going, 'Well, you know, we might do that. But that patent is kind of getting in our way. Maybe weíd better not.'

So you see, this patent on a very basic discovery is actually not an incentive. Itís a disincentive to getting the product that the-- the public wants. Which is a drug to treat diabetes. If we had decided early on that those very fundamental basic discoveries ought to be public domain-- which they were until fairly recently-- and reserve our patents for a circumstance where you can really say, okay, now we need that incentive. Now we need a private company to come in and spend a lot of money to make a product. Weíd be better off. And we havenít done that quite right.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Are you any longer-- putting on a white coat or whatever-- genome scientists put on and doing any hands on research? Or itís all just meetings and-- testifying and whatever?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
So I have a laboratory-- about ten very hardworking, dedicated students and post doctoral fellows-- toiling away right now on the NIH campus, studying diabetes and studying the genetics of aging. And-- I go there regularly. I donít, myself, hold the pipette in my hand, but they show me their data and ask for advice about what experiment to do next. And it is a wonderful way to remain grounded in the reality of what science is all about. And weíve made some pretty interesting discoveries just in the last couple of years. About diabetes and about the aging process.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Look down the road for us for awhile. Letís-- say itís the year 2025, not that far away. What kind of cures are we likely to see?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
2025 should be a really powerful, kind of, era in medicine. Because by then, we will have had the information about the real molecular basis of diabetes and heart disease and cancer-- for a good 15 years. Weíre discovering a lot of those right now because of the tools of The Genome Project. That information provides you with a bright light shining into this ignorance that weíve had about those diseases. Pointing you towards ways to prevent them and ways to treat them that we never could have thought of otherwise.

I think by 2025, weíll have a much better emphasis on prevention. Weíll really be focused on keeping people healthy. And weíll do it in an individualized way, not a one size fits all approach. Because weíre all different. Our DNA is different. And-- and that process will, I think, allow a lot of people to avoid illnesses that might otherwise have struck them.

If you do get sick, the drugs that will be waiting for you will be rather different than what we have now. Theyíll be much more precisely and rationally targeted. Theyíll be much more likely to work. And theyíll be less likely to cause you a side effect.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I-- I mean, to a layman-- and I mean, I know itís-- a hundred different diseases, but President Nixon started this war on cancer. We always seem to have wars on-- on everything. Is that a-- a winnable war or a partially winnable war? I mean, if you look 20 years down the road, could-- what are we about-- what is it? Fifty, 55 percent of the people now-- recover from cancer or keep it in-- in remission. Is that likely to go up to 70, 80 percent?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
We are making great strides on understanding cancer at DNA level. Cancer is a disease of the genome. And thatís what happens. You make mistakes in a cell somewhere in your body that causes it to start to grow when it shouldíve stopped, and thatís cancer. And those mistakes are mistakes of DNA. Cataloging those in a really comprehensive way is underway right now in something called the Cancer Genome Atlas. There are hundreds of different cancers. To figure out all the details of all of those is going to take some time. And then to take that information to develop targeted therapies will take a bit longer. But I think you could be fairly confident to see improvement.
BEN WATTENBERG:
One-- once you gain the knowledge, how do you stop-- how do you stop that growth?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
So basically, the knowledge tells you whatís the pressure point for that cancer. How can you find something, a drug, that will basically go right to the reason why that cell is growing out of control and stop it. Weíve done that now. The most dramatic example is a common type of adult leukemia. The drug Gleevec des-- designed exactly in this strategy we were just talking about, now puts 95 percent of people, which used to be a fatal disease, into a sustained, complete, apparently almost permanent remission. One drug going right to the heart of the reason why those-- leukemia cells are here.
BEN WATTENBERG:
You take it orally or you inject it?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Take it orally. Once a day. It is a Godsend. And we need to have, of course, thousands of those Godsends for the thousands of diseases that afflict us. But weíre on the path to getting there.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Well, thatís a-- just letís-- try to wrap up for a minute. Then I have one final question. You hear the issues of-- privacy, of ethics, of legality, of-- social situations. Where do you come out on that in terms of this-- whole situation?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
One of the things that Iím most proud about The Human Genome Project was that, from the very outset, there was a decision made to focus some of the research efforts on the ethical, legal and social issues. Thatís a new experiment. Science has generally just gone its merry way.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I mean, sort of-- generated by the idea that we have in our hands the ability to create life. That whole Louise Brown, that kind of thing, just blew peopleís mind thatÖ
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
I think people were a little alarmed. Where is this going? And letís not find ourselves one fine day in a crisis that we havenít thought about. Letís actually--
BEN WATTENBERG:
A brave new world of--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Right. Letís do some thoughtful predictions based upon real science, not science fiction. And letís see what kind of protections we need to put in place so that people donít get injured as a result of what should be a wonderful revolution in medicine and science. The most pressing issue right now-- seems like a pedestrian one, but boy, we need to solve it. And thatís this issue of genetic discrimination.

If I want to find out whether Iím at risk for colon cancer, I might very much need to know that information in order to plan what kind of surveillance I should have. But if it turns out I am and my health insurance company says, 'Oh, youíre a bad risk,' and stops my policy, or if my boss says, 'Oh, I donít think I want to promote you,' then Iíve been injured. Iíve suffered a harm.

Genetic discrimination has been looked at over the course of some 15 years by bioethicists, by lawyers, by social scientists. Everybody agrees this-- this should just be illegal. And we are very close-- right now, to seeing that successfully dealt with, with federal legislation which has already passed the House 420 to three.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Yeah, but-- but--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
And itís under consideration in the Senate right now.
BEN WATTENBERG:
What happens when an insurance company, a private enterprise, seeking to maximum its profits for investors, but also for pension plans that may be investing your retirement money or my retirement money and says-- 'The best way to do that is to gage the risks for each individual,' as they do now. You have to take a physical. And suppose they said, 'We want to run a genome test on you.' What is the legal, political, social-- rationale for saying no, you canít do it? When they can run it-- they can do your blood pressure. They can do all kinds of other things.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Well, you could also argue that what this is a bit of, is an indictment of our healthcare system in that many people feel that healthcare ought to be a right, not a privilege. I donít want to go there right now. But let me say--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Iím gonna take you there.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Under--
BEN WATTENBERG:
No, no, no.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Underwriting on the basis of existing illness, itís our system. And it-- if you try to take that away, our current health insurance system would collapse. Underwriting on the basis of predictive information about somebodyís future risk of illness, which is not yes/no, itís sort of-- relative risks-- is not something that necessarily is going to cause the health insurance industry any trouble at all. As long as itís off the table for all the companies, not just one or two.

In fact, the health insurance companies are not particularly bothered by having this taken away. Theyíre not sure they want to have to do this complicated underwriting based on genetic information of uncertain significance. But it sure scares the public if we donít give them the assurances that that isnít going to happen. And many people are now already refusing to participate in genetic research because of that fear. We need to solve that.

Let me ask you another question as a leading scientist. We are overwhelmed these days by science, pop science and not so science. That in this global warming argument, particularly, there is this resort to, well, the consensus of scientists believe that. Now, Iím not even sure-- it may be a consensus of scientists but not a consensus of climatologists. But letís even assume it is a consensus of climatologists. The great scientific advances were anti consensus. I mean, Copernicus was anti consensus. And Newton was anti consensus. And Einstein was anti consensus. I mean--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Darwin certainly was.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And Darwin was certainly anti consensus. So-- so to say, well, you know, those of you who doubt global warming, youíre working, heaven for fend, youíre working against the consensus. That does not prove anything, does it?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
No. But I-- there is a certainly difference, though. In terms of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein and Darwin, they were coming up with new frameworks.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and Al Gore-- and Al Gore. Thereís another-- the great-- the great pantheon of science. Right?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Itís one thing to propose a totally new framework-- for understanding-- the way in which-- nature operates. Itís another to argue about a body of data and what conclusion you should draw from it. And the latter is really the current substance of the argument about global warming. The dataís there and people will argue, and are arguing, to what extent does that implicate humans as the source of what are clearly changes in the climate. Or is this just some natural cycle of our planet?
BEN WATTENBERG:
Well and-- and changes in the climate are a universal-- climatological phenomenon. I mean, the snow-- the snows of Kilimanjaro began melting in the year 1800. It is not a new phenomenon.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
And the question is are we now accelerating that by our own actions? And thatís where the debate is really joined.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and-- and the thing that people rarely, if ever, take into account when they say humans is that-- the-- population decline, the coming decline-- the reduction in fertility-- and in-- and in birthrates is going to-- there was a UN-- projection not many decades ago of 20 billion people. Then of 13 billion people. And now it looks like seven to eight billion people and shrinking. Now that is going to mean less-- carbon emissions.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
That would be-- a hopeful outcome. íCause not only is it a matter of carbon, itís how are we going to feed the world? Because the growth rates are still much too high in places where we donít have resources placed.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Alright, now, letís-- letís get back on topic. The Human Genome Project was a 15 year project. It finished two years early.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
It did.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Are we going to continue-- seeing deadlines being beaten as this accelerates?
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
I think we are. The idea of getting The Genome Project done by 2005 was just audacious when it was put forward. And yes, we did get it done early and under budget, for that matter. And now weíve set other deadlines. Weíve--
BEN WATTENBERG:
You sound like a good bureaucrat (LAUGHTER) would say-- I hope that--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Oh, no, not that. No, it-- itís--
BEN WATTENBERG:
No, thatís fine. Itís-- listen, more power to you.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
--gratifying to be able to marshal the resources and lead a team that had that kind of energy and ambition and determination to make it happen. And gave it all away, on top of that. And yes, we now have instead of, sort of, one flagship effort reading out the letters of the human DNA code, now we have a dozen of these new initiatives building on that foundation. And, you know, they have bumps in the road from time to time. But they continually outstrip the expectations of almost everybody.

The pace is exponential. We are going to be at the point probably in seven or eight years, where you can your complete genome, I can have mine, anybody whoís got a thousand bucks in their health insurance policy can have that determined, once and for all. Put it in your medical record. You donít have to go back later and check this place and that place. Itíll just be there because the technologyís making that possible. Thatís amazing to think. An individual genome for $1,000? Itís going to happen.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Letís wrap up-- going back to religion. Very-- well publicized Englishman named Richard Dawkins, who weíve had on this program, is also a biologist and a-- a-- pontificator. Heís a-- a member of our club. But he has-- sold hundreds of thousands of books-- professing to describe-- really proofs in his belief in atheism. My own view is I can see someone being religious. I can see someone being agnostic. But for someone to say categorically that I know that there is no unmoved mover, something like that, is-- strikes me as extremely arrogant.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
And we are seeing not just Dawkins, but a spate of angry atheist books right now, arguing that science has rendered God no longer necessary. In so doing, Dawkins and his colleagues go wildly outside the evidence. Science is designed to investigate the natural world. That is its limit. If God has any meaning, God cannot be entirely enclosed within the natural world. And therefore, science has to remain silent on the subject of Godís existence.

It just has to. And to take a position such as Dawkins does, saying, 'Well, because heís a scientist and because he has studied the way that biology works and that it leaves no place for God,' means that he started off in the wrong direction as far as his basic premise about the role of science in first place. But itís clearly something that he and his colleagues are attached to, not just on a rational basis. This is a very personal-- argument that they put forward.

And atheism has become for them a form of fundamentalism. It brooks no argument. It gets angry when arguments are placed-- at it in terms of an intellectual challenge. Itís very interesting. And just if they--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Well, I-- I would like to have you on a program with Professor Dawkins. And I want you to call him a fundamentalist. And letís see-- letís see where that-- where-- where--
DR. FRANCIS COLLINS:
Well, he is. Iíd be glad to-- weíve actually sort of had that conversation. He didnít care for the label.
BEN WATTENBERG:
No, Iím-- Iím-- Iím sure that he didnít. Francis Collins, thank you so very much for joining us on these-- two sessions of-- of-- of Think Tank. Please be our guest-- again. Good luck and God speed in your work. So thank you. And thank you. Please-- send us your-- comments-- via email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.



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