Friday afternoon at AAAS

Now that the laptop is working again I can post the rest of the first day that I wrote up earlier as promised. I’ll also try to get a description of Sunday up as soon as I can,though it may be a day or two since I have a lot going on now that I’m back home.

After lunch I went to the session “Genome Analyses and Sequencing to Advance Drug Discovery and Treatment. ” As you might guess from the sort of unwieldy title, this was more of a set of typical science talks than many of the other session at AAAS, though still with a lot of potential impact on society. The first speaker was Richard Wilson from Washington University (the one in St Louis, not our home in Seattle) who discussed his work with cancer genetics and particularly his most recent work sequencing the genomes of cancer cells and comparing them to the non-cancer cells in the patient. This allows him to identify exactly which mutations are associated with the abnormal characteristics of cancer. It’s impressive how much the capability to do this kind of sequencing has grown, just in the time I’ve been in science. According to Wilson, the first cancer genome cost $1.6 million dollars. Now he is working on collecting a set of 50 different genomes of the same type of cancer to look for similarities, which currently is costing $0.2 million per genome, and he expects it to soon further to decrease to $0.05 million ($50,000). It won’t be too long before this kind of analysis can be used as part of ordinary diagnostics done on patients, just as some genetic tests are already becoming routine before prescribing treatments. Unfortunately a major gap that still needs to be bridged is determining what effect these mutations are having at a molecular level. That kind of knowledge will be key in finding new ways to apply this knowledge to new treatments. The third speaker dealt with similar areas, but with broader applications. This was Dan Roden from Vanderbilt who discussed his efforts to develop a database of genetic data that can be associated with a complete medical history – though all personal identifying information is discarded to protect privacy. The ethical issues associated with this probably could have made an interesting talk itself, though for today he focused mainly on the science potential or this resource, which is fascinating as well. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of it incorporating the so-called “phi-nome”. I’m not certain of the origin of the name, but I’m familiar with phi-analysis which is looking at the effects of a mutation on a protein’s physical stability, which seems somewhat related to the idea of the phi-nome. (Edit: I feel stupid, it was probably “phe-nome” as in phenotype” ) This is a set of various health issues that were given a numerical code, and using the database researchers could identify any that appear correlated with a genotype they may be interested in, even if such an association hasn’t been observed before. This seems like it could be incredibly useful in generating hypotheses. Lastly, I didn’t skip over the other speaker due to lack of interest in the subject, merely for the flow of the writing. This second speaker was Mary Relling from St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and she discussed the genetics that are associated with racial differences and cancer. She has identified several sets of changes known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that can be useful in predicting prognosis of some kinds of cancers. While certain sets of SNPs tend to be more prevalent among certain races than others, she has found them to actually be slightly better predictors than self-identified race, and this information can also be easily applied to people with mixed race backgrounds, unlike trying to predict outcomes based on self-identification of race. As was brought up in the questions, we seem to be entering a stage where a person’s genetic characteristics can be considered more important to health than racial characteristics, a similar sentiment that was expressed in Michael Specter’s section on this subject in Denialism.

The final session of the first day was probably the most interesting up to that point. This was titled “Speaking Scientific Truth Power” and had representatives from the South African, Canadian and American national academies discuss the roles they all play in their respective countries. Despite the differences between these countries all three described dealing with similar kinds of challenges in interacting with their politicians and public and the need to accept that science is often just one of several factors that goes into policy decisions. That balance between competing interests can be difficult to deal with, but as Peter Nicholson from the Council of Canadian Academies put it “being right is not the same as being influential”, and it’s important for a scientist that wants to be influential to be able to address those other concerns. One interesting example of this came from Roseanne Diab from the Academy of Science of South Africa, who said their report on building cities to have low carbon emission was well received when it was framed in terms of development and poverty alleviation rather than as an environmental issue. The responsibility for the use of good science in forming policy isn’t entirely on the scientists though, and Richard Bisell from the American National Research Council also spent some time explaining the need for policy makers to be able to use science appropriately and be willing to both be patient enough for good science to be done and be willing to change policies in response to that science.

It was also interesting to hear Dr. Bisell specifically call for the need for the next generation of policy makers and scientists to have training in how to interact with each other.  As a leader of FOSEP I like to think this is an area we can contribute to.