Venter on the Past & Future of Genomics (etc.)

From Der Spiegel: Interview with Craig Venter: ‘We Have Learned Nothing from the Genome’
The whole thing is worth reading, but here are a few snippets I found interesting.

First, here’s Venter being dismissive about fears related to genomic knowledge:

SPIEGEL: The genome project hasn’t just raised hopes — but also worries. Do you understand those concerns?

Venter: Yes. There are two groups of people. People either want to know the information or they prefer to live like an ostrich with their head in the sand, not knowing anything. The fear is based on the ill-founded belief that those who know the DNA sequence also know every aspect of life. This nonsense has been spread by the same geneticists who were afraid of the commercialization of this stuff. From the time of the first few discoveries of gene defects — Huntington’s disease, for example, everybody thought that if you knew your genome, you would know when you would die and what you would die from. That is nonsense.

This bit strikes me as right:

SPIEGEL: And what about the fears about the abuse of gene data through insurers or employers, for example? Do you see that as sheer hysteria?

Venter: Abuse is not a question of whether the data is available. It is an issue of laws. You can’t do anything to change the availability of genetic data. Look at this bottle that you have touched — that’s all I need to obtain your entire genetic information.

SPIEGEL: How much would you be able to learn about us by doing so?

Venter: If anything, we don’t really know how to read the genome and it can’t tell us very much right now. So what’s the ethical debate about?


SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?

Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.

SPIEGEL: Did it at least provide us with some new knowledge?

Venter: It certainly has. Eleven years ago, we didn’t even know how many genes humans have. Many estimated that number at 100,000, and some went as high as 300,000. We made a lot of enemies when we claimed that there appeared to be considerably fewer — probably closer to the neighborhood of 40,000! And then we found out that there are only half as many. I was just in Stockholm for the 200th anniversary of the Karolinska Institute. The first presentation was about the many achievements the decoding of the genome has brought. Then I spoke and said that this century will be remembered for how little, and not how much, happened in this field.

…and on the (current) value of genomics to medicine:

SPIEGEL: Why is it taking so long for the results of genome research to be applied in medicine?

Venter: Because we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.

So, at least Venter is consistent. His own genome is sequenced, and even published. But he says that knowledge is worth relatively little. His genome is sequenced, in other words, not because doing so is meaningful and valuable, but because it isn’t.


About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in Craig Venter, ethics, genes, Human Genome Project. Bookmark the permalink.

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