BioAgenda Summit

I didn’t know you could freeze your butt off in Palm Springs
this time of year. You can. Unseasonably rainy and frigid weather was a
sidelight to the BioAgenda Summit I attended earlier this week with the CA Div
past-president and with Julia DeFehr, distinguished giving staff.

The thing that’s worth talking about is that—as a direct
consequence I’ve been doing for the Futuring and Innovation Committee—the CA
Division has a nascent effort to look at the potential of greater engagement
between the Society in CA and the life science industry—aka, biotech. This is a
really big industry in the state as I discussed earlier, and it’s been made
even bigger by the recent passage of the stem cell initiative. We have three
volunteers and a couple of staff involved. In the Society when you’ve got
volunteers it’s for real. BioAgenda was a kind of biotech intensive about what
the vision is and what are the issues of the industry are.

To drop a few names: Francis Collins, Craig Venter, George
Rathman, Stewart Brand, Carol Kovac, Paul Berg, Leroy Hood, Gregory Stock,
James Reston, Brook Byers were on the program. Actually, Venter was a
no-show—surprise, surprise! But Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker performed
biotech theater, if you can imagine that.

Topics covered included personalized medicine, drug
pricing, science and politics, the economics of biotech, bioethics, and, of
course, “the future of the human species.” A lot of shallow stuff like that.
The sessions were long and pretty brain-wracking, but stimulating, to say the
least.

A real delight to me was Cynthia Kenyon, a professor of
biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF. She was on the agenda to tell us how she
can make c. elegans nematodes live several times their normal lifespan.
So what? Well the Zen of modern life science is knowing that the basic
biological mechanisms that work in worms are not dissimilar to the mechanisms
in higher animals, maybe even us. When evolution learned a good trick many
millions of years ago, it didn’t toss it out later for some fly-by-night
process. Fundamental biological processes have maintained a thread all the way
down to current organisms. So worms, squirming vigorously way past the time
when they should have been dead, are worth some attention.

And maybe the cell signaling involved in determining why
cells live or die at a specific time holds clues to cancer-related processes. Perhaps that’s why Cynthia will be a new ACS professor. She’s young, has
blonde hair that falls in her eyes, and she keeps saying how “cool” all this
is. I believe it!

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