The classic image of scientific research is that it begins with a brainwave - perhaps while sitting in an orchard or relaxing in a bath. Then the pioneer tests the hypothesis, which is published to allow assessment by others. On the basis of those tests, it may become an accepted theory. In reality, the pattern is more complex, unpredictable and exciting. Brian Alexander illustrates this in his racy and readable account of recent biomedical research.
His central theme is research in biotechnologies to treat disease, extend human lifespans and, perhaps, give our descendants abilities we do not have. Alexander documents the scientific and commercial objectives of these biotechnologies and the progress made to date, and finds this disappointing. Against this background, he introduces members of the public who hope to have the first access to treatments offering eternal life.
The author establishes a historical framework by quoting views expressed in the first part of the 20th century by J. B. S. Haldane and H. G. Wells, illustrating the scientific ambitions of their day. Their expectations of what could be achieved contrast with today's attitudes, which often present scientific discoveries as threats to society. We take for granted that we are much healthier than our great-grandparents and have a far longer average lifespan, but, while some of this difference is due to social and economic changes, technical developments, such as antibiotics and vaccinations, have also been important.
Alexander then focuses on newer approaches to perfection and extending life, including cryogenics, dietary supplements and cosmetic surgery, fashionable with researchers and the public. The idea of freezing entire bodies or the head of a recently deceased person has to me always seemed pointless. First, cell degeneration would begin within minutes of death.
Second, there is no procedure for storing small pieces of tissue, let alone a complete head.
Other themes include the sequencing of the human genome, gene therapy, genetic enhancement, stem-cell therapy and cloning. Still, the quest for immortality is presented as the common objective. While I am a strong supporter of research to treat and prevent human disease, and so to extend modestly the length of our healthy lifespan, this aim seems plain silly.
Alexander is, nevertheless, well placed to report on recent events and to provide pen portraits of the participants: scientists know him, he has attended many scientific meetings as a journalist and has interviewed many key researchers. He interweaves accounts of the science with descriptions of the personalities of the researchers and their financial backers, paying special attention to William Haseltine, Craig Venter and Michael West, founders of, respectively, Human Genome Sciences, Celera Genomics and the Geron Corporation.
The book centres on these US entrepreneurs not because Alexander is based there but because that country has encouraged its scientists to exploit their discoveries commercially. In the UK, we are rather embarrassed by the notion that researchers might become wealthy.
Sometimes an area of research becomes fashionable because of a new observation. Other groups join the bandwagon and funds become available.
Alexander clearly explains how this happened for genome sequencing and stem-cell research.
Only hindsight will show whether the increased effort has been justified.
It is too early to say what impact the emerging areas of genetics and stem-cell therapy will have on our health.
Ian Wilmut is head of the department of gene expression and development, Roslin Institute.
Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion
Author - Brian Alexander
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 289
Price - £19.99 and £11.99
ISBN - 0 7382 0761 6 and 0 465 99195 X