BIO President Feldbaum's BIO '99 Speech

MAY 17, 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen:
I've entitled this talk, "With the 20th Century in Our Rear View Mirror, The Choices Ahead" and I intend to talk about that.

But first, let me get something out of the way here. I don't know if you feel the same way but, over this past year, since our last big meeting in New York, I must tell you I have grown sick and tired, totally saturated, with the M-word.

Millennium-this, millennium-that.

Millennium babies, for example; in Italy, some doctor said he intends to deliver the world's first test-tube "Millennium babies" by Caesarean section seconds past midnight on January first.

As a footnote to my speech last year in New York, this is a miserable example of the adage that just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should do it.

The long list of millennium celebrations, projects and commercial products goes on and on. For example, for a mere $75,000 you can fly around the world on the Concorde, beginning on Christmas Eve 1999 in New York City with stops in Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles to collect passengers on their way to Christmas in Hawaii. Then on to New Year's with stops in Sydney, Hong Kong, Delhi, and Cairo.

Then of course, there's the Millennium bug, Millennium heroes, the Millennium countdown, Millennium fever, Millennium moments, and Millennium madness.

Dave Schmickel, BIO's patent counsel, tells me that all these so-called Millennium phrases have actually been registered as trademarks!

I thought about what my grandmother might say if she were alive today. She would be 103. I imagine she would say, "Millennium, Schmillennium!" Now I am told that, too, is trademarked. I am not kidding.

Seriously, do we really think that we are gonna change when the bell tolls this particular midnight? That we are Cinderella? Don't we all have long personal strings of broken New Years' resolutions?

Or, perhaps do we think that other people or our situation or the environment will suddenly be transformed? If folks do think that, I suspect this New Year's Eve will be even more of a letdown than usual -- and I'm speaking as a guy who usually has a pretty good time on New Year's.

No, I think my grandmother would have had this one right. While there certainly are transforming moments in history, they don't occur on any known schedule. The rhythm of real life does not respond to a metronome, a clock, or a calendar.

In our increasingly significant world of biotechnology, however, it is so tempting and to a remarkable degree, valid to talk of the impact our technology will have on the 21st century. I have done this many times myself in talks, articles, and letters to the editor.

But, more recently, I find myself skipping entirely over the M-word and the 21st century. In a number of talks I find that I open with an assertion like this:
"Babies born in certain parts of the world today, May 17, 1999, may have a better-than-even chance of living into the 22nd century" and that's precisely because of what you in this audience are doing now, in dealing with not only age-related diseases, but also by creating new therapies for life-threatening childhood maladies like cystic fibrosis and blood-related diseases, such as hemophilia and sickle-cell anemia.

In terms of food and agriculture, we're looking forward very soon to tomatoes with enhanced phyto-nutrients, called lycopenes, to prevent prostate cancer; cooking oils modified to contain vitamin A to treat night blindness, a condition that affects many people in developing countries; and bananas and potatoes that contain vaccines against childhood diseases. These edible vaccines will cost pennies per dose and won't have to be refrigerated.

I don't say stuff like this because I'm paid to. I don't believe it just because it's part of my job description. Like any former trial lawyer, I've got to have evidence, and in this case, I've got the best.

My Dad, whom many of you have met at previous BIO conferences, joins us again today in Seattle. Last month, at age 80, he became the "poster boy" for a BIO member company that has developed a vaccine for melanoma. My Dad was lucky enough to get into that just-right clinical trial almost eight years ago. (For the record, I had nothing to do with it.) It has not been easy, but my Dad's a warrior, and here he is. I won't embarrass him by asking him to stand, but it's not because he can't stand up, or because he can't beat all of you in tennis or whip you in arm wrestling, or finish the New York Times crossword puzzle faster than you can.

Maury Feldbaum is part of a growing body of evidence why people like myself, and Senators Connie Mack and Barbara Mikulski &em; who have family histories of cancer and Alzheimers &em; and many, many others have reason to believe mightily in what you're doing! Now allow me to fulfill my promise to talk about checking our rear-view mirror while we're trying to steer our future course.

Our excessive preoccupation with the M-word, as artificial and superficial as it may be, does not relieve us of the obligation to check over our shoulder at the 20th century we're leaving behind and try to determine what values are worth carrying into the future.

I think it's instructive &em; and fun, actually &em; to look back from century to century. For example, as we moved from the 19th century to the 20th century, what were really important, well-informed people saying? Well, in 1899 U.S. Patent Commissioner Charles Duell made this bold statement when he quit the Patent Office: He said, "Everything that can be invented, has been invented."

Given the amazing amount of biotechnology innovation I get to talk about, some nights I think my own great-grandchildren might dig out some ancient floppy disk that includes a BIO speech and find a quote just as cracked as that.

But Mr. Duell was in good company. Speaking a few years before him, French Professor of Physiology Pierre Pachet insisted:
"Louie Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." British mathematician and physicist William Thomas Kelvin, proclaimed:
"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." And, from the realm of politics, U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared that, quote:
"Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."

That last one is actually more mystifying and more ridiculous than either the "theory of germs" or "heavier-than-air flying machines." Pachet didn't know pathogens, and Kelvin couldn't imagine Charles Lindbergh's Sprit of St. Louis, much less a Boeing 747, but President Cleveland had to have met women. No wonder his wife was more popular than he was.

Here's a final Washington, D.C.-based forecast: In the 1890s, aprominent newspaper columnist, Bill Nye, predicted politics would become less complicated by the time the 1990s rolled around. He said, "Politically, there will be far less money expended on electing officials."

Painfully off-the-mark foretelling continued throughout the 20th century.In 1933 Lord Rutherford, Nobel laureate for his pioneering workin nuclear physics, said: "Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine."

Also, an article in Popular Mechanics in 1949 declared, "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."

Put that on your lap.

What were these people thinking? And could we be that wrong?

Sure we could.

Judging from the way reality has upended past expectations, we should carry a healthy load of caution and humility into the next century. We should also stock up on courage as we step forward into an unpredictable world.

A great deal of global turmoil in the 20th century involved struggles between democratic governments and communist or fascist governments. Democracies have, in large part, fostered scientific development for the benefit of individuals. Communist and fascist regimes have usually used science to empower the state over the individual.

On the grand political level, despite the deadly ethnic, racial and tribal conflicts that continue, democracy and individualism have at least momentarily won out. Despite that victory, we continue, appropriately, to worry about issues that hark back to abuse of science by the state. Such abuse is a well-established and frightening theme in literature, but the new power of biotechnology and the Internet is giving these fears a modern gleam.

Let's step back to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Think about it: Huxley's world is inhabited by an artificial breed of humans created entirely by science. These are Alphas, who rule by their superior intelligence as the leaders of an elite scientific totalitarianism. Sex has been entirely eliminated from reproduction, and all other humanoids are slaves of the Alphas. A small contingent of these slaves rebel, retreating to a cave to regain their souls...How? reading dog-eared copies of Shakespeare. From the 1930s through the 60s, Brave New World was thought to be prophetic; by the 1980s it was considered to be outdated; now it's back in fashion. The concepts aren't too different from those found in the recent movie The Matrix.

George Orwell's book 1984 is another scary science-inspired tale about a future totalitarian state. The leaders in Orwell's book maintain order by controlling information. Keeping a personal diary is punishable by death. Thankfully, that remains far-fetched, but 1984's two-way telescreens in every home and office through which the government spies on peopleare uncomfortably similar to our concerns with Internet privacy.

Simply put, the critical question in our choices regarding bioethics and privacy is: Will we let our enormous accomplishments in biotechnology and information technology control us, or will we control them for our benefit? In the area of information technology, I worry that we may have lost much of our claim to privacy already.

Internet commerce has facilitated the electronic storage of personal information that can be accessed quickly by almost anyone with the know-how, and I'm not talking about especially sophisticated hackers here.

It is estimated that there is personal information stored electronically on more than 200 million U.S. citizens. Marketing companies can mine specific data on us based on our income, debts, lifestyle, travel, and most anything else you can think of.

What concerns me the most is the ability to track us as we access the Internet, to follow and analyze our thoughts and thought patterns as we move from one web site to another, write an E-mail, enter a contest, purchase stock, or order a book.

The increasing pervasiveness of the Internet, and the lightning speed with which information can be transmitted globally are among the simple, common-sense reasons BIO has advocated strong standards for keeping ourmedical records confidential. More and more our records will be stored and transmitted electronically.

Consider the case in Michigan earlier this year, when it was discovered that personal and medical information on thousands of patients in the University of Michigan health system was inadvertently posted on the Internet for the world to see for two months! Although the incident clearly was a mistake, it underscores everyone's fears.

Unless we (and we are all current or potential patients) are certain our medical histories are protected, we may not disclose information our health-care providers need for diagnosis and we may not seek the treatments we need.

And as we continue to peel away the mysteries of our genetic make-up to find new ways to treat diseases, our personal genetic codes must also expose to others our weaknesses and susceptibility to diseases. We cannot ignore the fact that the more we learn about ourselves, the more opportunities others have to erode our privacy and our personal freedoms.

If we can find out whether we are at risk for breast or prostate cancer, we should. Using this knowledge, we can protect ourselves better with regular check-ups to spot the disease early and get appropriate treatment.

But if our health insurer is going to drop us because we have some newly predictable chance of getting sick what then?

Speaking in this international meeting with the narrow perspective of a U.S. citizen, I believe our nation's pursuit of technological advancement, up till now, has strengthened our democracy. But we have to remain vigilant. The biotechnology and information revolutions which are obviously converging, particularly here in Seattle must enhance our individual choices, not restrict them.

That's why BIO has adopted another strong position, opposing the discriminatory misuse of medical information, including all genetic information.

We in biotechnology have become used to the paradoxes of the 20thcentury. As we move ahead and I'll avoid the M-word we must consider how far we should go and how fast we should proceed in orchestrating changes to our world. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it so well, "Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action."

Let me close with a quote from the speech Albert Camus gave upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. During World War II, Camus was active in the French Resistance.

"Each generation", he said, "doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself."

Our generation, relatively free from the Cold War's nuclear threat, is in the privileged position of being able to both reform and protect. Let's maintain the enthusiasm, exuberance, and thrill of reformers for the coming Biotechnology Century, for the biomedical, agricultural and environmental products that can, and probably will, change the quality of life in the next century and beyond while we protect what we have already accomplished. And as we go forward, let us wield the hard, sharp sword of enterprise and technology with dignity, thoughtfulness and humility.

This, we can do.