(Roughly) Daily

“The Times They Are A-Changin’”*…

If the 20th century belonged to physics, the 21st will, many argue, belong to biology… and, as Matthew Herper argues, it’s not clear that we’re ready…

The first time I remember hearing the words “biology’s century,” it was a sales pitch.

I was standing by the Long Island Sound in Sachem’s Head, Conn., in the shadow of an 11-foot-tall granite Stonehenge replica built by Jonathan Rothberg, a biotech entrepreneur, as he talked up his newest gadget, a tabletop DNA sequencer. It was 2010.

Near his monument to the ancient past, Rothberg was conjuring a vision of the future, one based on harnessing the power of biology and technology to transform the world. The phrase he uttered wasn’t new, having been in circulation since the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, and I’d been covering biotech for a decade. But that was the moment the phrase sunk in. I added it to my Twitter bio, where it has remained.

Over the next decade, I’d see even more amazing things. Genetically altered white blood cells that can cure cancer. A gene therapy that gave sight to blind children. Pills that wrench decades of life from a cancer death sentence or ease the breathing of patients with cystic fibrosis. And, of course, not one but several effective Covid-19 vaccines created only a year into a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Here’s what “biology’s century” means to me: In the same way the 20th century belonged to physics, the 21st is biological. But while physics in the 20th century brought airplanes, personal computers, and posters of Albert Einstein, it also meant the atom bomb and a complete transformation of the social order.

Now, we’re approaching a moment when changes in what we understand about biology are every bit as exhilarating and terrifying…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Here’s why we’re not prepared for the next wave of biotech innovation,” from @matthewherper in @statnews.

* Bob Dylan

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As we get wet, we might send healing birthday greetings to Thomas Cech; he was born on this date in 1947. A chemist, he is best known for his discovery, with Sidney Altman, of the catalytic properties of RNA– for which they were awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Cech discovered that RNA could itself cut strands of RNA, suggesting that life might have started as RNA– and paving the way for the development of mRNA vaccines like the ones that have stemmed the tide of COVID.

Cech also studied telomeres; his lab discovered an enzyme, TERT (telomerase reverse transcriptase), which is part of the process of restoring telomeres after they are shortened during cell division. (a process central to aging).

From 2000-2008, Cech served as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the largest private funding organizations for biological and medical research in the United States.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 8, 2022 at 1:00 am

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