Genetics, Vintage Cars, and the Energy Problem

Last week was interesting for me in that the climate has changed completely in San Diego and it has been much hotter. Like other parts of the country, we now have to rely on air conditioning to cool our homes and events. One event where I would have enjoyed more air conditioning was on Sunday at Malin Burnham’s house. Malin founded the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and he had a lunch gathering at his home in Point Loma, followed by a panel discussion on the future of genetics held at the Evans Garage museum near the airport. The Evans Garage has more than a dozen vintage cars, all in tip-top condition. Most of the cars date from around 1900-1915 and none were current brands, having long ago either gone out of business or been swallowed up by one of their competitors. The four speakers were Craig Venter of the Venter Institute located here in La Jolla and in Rockville, Maryland, Erkki Ruoslahti from the Santa Barbara branch of the Burnham Institute, Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis — a distinguished researcher at Children’s Hospital and Research Institute in Oakland — and Robert Kline, chairman of governing committee of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Palo Alto. John Reed from the Burnham Institute served as moderator.

Craig Venter told us that he thinks genetics offers the possibility of an unusual but ingenious answer to our energy problem. He believes that meaningful amounts of algae that is genetically engineered to create oil-like molecules can be grown. This was the best seller of the conference, and he has been promoting the idea with the likes of Barack Obama, who feels that something drastic needs to be done to counter the devastating impact the oil and gas monopolies are having on the economies of all the world’s countries. Erkki Ruoslahti discussed the possibility of using nanotechnology to insert just the right amount of medicine into a cancer victim’s diet to attack the disease — all done non-invasively. He has conducted a variety of experiments to establish the veracity of this process. These ideas are in the final stages of development and testing, and results look good. Breakthroughs are not unexpected as the research continues. Kary Mullis is an expert in the biochemistry side of genetic research, pioneering the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) methodology that has enabled genetic researchers to synthesize large quantities of specific copies of the DNA molecule very quickly. He has an interesting way of generating ideas which is to put the problem in his head and then think not directly about it — but indirectly — until a solution comes to him. He said it was a sure thing with him, and he highly recommended it to other people. Perhaps I will try this suggestion and see if I can also win a Nobel Prize in the process. Robert Kline led the discussion of the financing of these genomics projects. Robert informed us that not much government funding is going to private institutions working on genetic problems these days. Most research, development, and start-up funds are coming, if at all, from private sources — the medical research budgets have been severely curtailed by the Iraq War. States such as California are stepping in to float bonds for several hundred million dollars for the stem cell initiative. This technique using state funds will work for nonprofit research institutes but not for profit-making institutes.