A crank attacks the Human Genome Project

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was one of the most massive scientific undertakings in recent years and, from a basic science and technology development standpoint, one of the most productive. The data gained formed the basis of the genomic revolution. And “revolution” is the right word. A mere 12 years after the human genome sequence was first published in papers in Nature and Science, we now have petabytes of sequence data pouring out of universities, research institutes, and genomics institutes. Sequencing a genome, which took several years to do for the HGP and cost billions of dollars, can now be done in days and costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Before too long, it could cost less than $1,000, or at least well under $10,000, which would put it in the range of the costs of some tests and interventions that health insurance will pay for.

We now have the capability to measure simultaneously the level of expression of every gene in the human genome; in fact whole genome expression profiling seems like quaint technology. Seven years ago, when I published a paper that incorporated cDNA microarray data, it was cutting edge. Now, we have next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques, such as RNAseq, which is the common name for whole genome shotgun sequencing (WTSS). RNAseq overcomes the major limitation of cDNA microarrays, which is that it is only possible to measure the mRNAs whose sequences are known and therefore have been placed on the gene chip. Consequently, cDNA microarrays can’t discover previously unknown transcript and in general do not cover noncoding RNAs, such as microRNAs and long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs). RNAseq does. As a result, using RNAseq it is possible to identify every sequence of every mRNA transcript, coding and noncoding, being made by the cell and how much. These sorts of techniques were recently in the news with the publication of a new set of results from the ENCODE project, which has led to breathless news stories about how “junk DNA” really isn’t “junk” at all and that 80% of it has function. This is a surprise only to creationists, who attack a straw man version of genetics and genomics, and, in fact, I might blog about ENCODE next week because, well, it’s fascinating stuff, and there’s been a lot of misinformation about it.

I am, however, tired. It’s late in the week, and it’s been a busier than usual week for me, particularly in the OR; so for now I think I’ll slum a bit. (Please forgive me.) And when I’m looking for something easy to blog about, there’s one website that almost always comes through. Well, actually, there are multiple websites that usually come through, but in this case, I’m going to look at NaturalNews.com, specifically a little rant not by Mike Adams himself (a.k.a. the Health Ranger, although in reality he should be called the Health Danger), but rather one of his minions, S. D. Wells, who decided that the HGP was a massive boondoggle. Now, disappointment with the HGP is not new. A round of stories asking “Where are all those cures the HGP promised us?” popped up in 2010, which was the tenth anniversary of the reporting of the HGP, and I duly commented on them. Basically, the HGP was necessary starting point, something that had to be done, before we could really dig into how the human genome works and figure out ways to intervene in diseases with a genetic component. Ten years was too short a time to expect a lot of “cures,” and in fact, as someone who is involved in this sort of research, I still find my mind boggling at how fast genomic techniques have progressed just over the last few years. Even so, it’s hard not to admit that there was some over-promising, but even so I feel the HGP was totally worth it.

Not Wells. In fact, Wells sees a vast conspiracy:

“To ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and then generate treatments” was the true goal of the 10-year, $3 billion human genome project, or was it? Geneticists who were paid a very pretty penny to study the genetics of disease are claiming they are “back to square one” in knowing where to look for the roots of these diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. But are any of them really diseases at all?

Cue ominous music.

Or was it? What was the real goal of the HGP, according to Wells? I’m beginning to wonder if Adams has found a protege, a potential successor, because Wells can lay it on almost as thick as Adams, and a quick Google search reveals numerous rants on not just NaturalNews.com, but Gary Null’s website, and numerous conspiracy websites about how The Man is trying to crush alternative medicine. With that background, it’s not surprising that Wells considers the HGP a complete failure, but not necessarily in the way you think, as Wells thinks it’s also a success in one way:

The National Institute of Health (NIH), an organization which actually does publish real findings, embraced the idea [of using the HGP to look for genes associated with disease]. But it looks as though the quackery of Western medicine took on the whole project in an effort to once again find cures just so it could bury them, before someone else comes along and claims they’ve found the same. This has been the trend since the United States hired Nazi scientists after WWII to design food additives and medicine (mustard gas chemo) which fuel cancer. (http://www.naturalnews.com/036484_Bayer_Nazi_war_crimes.html)

The truth of the matter is that the genome project was a huge success. Every gene and control element can now be mapped to its correct site on the genome, enabling all the working parts of the human system to be related to one another. But according to modern “disease-curing” science, it has turned out to be a dead end, a waste of time and money, a labyrinth with no exit, a boondoggle. Scientist who are paid off by the FDA, the CDC, and Big Pharma are very skilled at confusing the general public, with comments about the Genome Project like, “The only intellectually honest answer is that there’s no way to know.” This is the ultimate example of total intellectual property domination, where the answers are right there in our hands, but the chronic care industry won’t release them.

I do so love a totally unnecessary and unconnected argumentum ad Nazi-ium. Actually, I don’t. It’s the very reason I created the Hitler Zombie, lo those many years ago. However, Wells’ brain is far too thin a gruel to sate the hunger of the undead Führer; so I didn’t see this post as a suitable vehicle to resurrect His Undeadness again. This particular Nazi analogy feels too “tacked on,” anyway, as though Wells is trying too hard to find a way, however tenuous, to liken conventional medicine to Nazis.

It is a rather amusing idea, though. Think of it. Wells thinks that the government spent over $3 billion, used the efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists, and a spent a decade in order to sequence the human genome and then, having succeeded at that task, “buried” the results. Why would the government do that? It makes no sense, except in the fevered brain of a Mike Adams acolyte, who seems to think that the results were buried in order to keep people from finding out about “natural cures” for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Again, given the burden that these diseases cause in terms of care and lost productivity, it boggles the mind why the government would acquiesce to such a scheme, even if you believe that big pharma actually wanted it. In fact, there is a hint of an implication in Wells’ rant that in reality the HGP was a huge success for reasons other than using the information to find the causes of and cures for diseases with a major disease component. What could Wells mean? Well, there is an undercurrent in the alt-med crankosphere that the HGP is going to be used as a tool of eugenics. For example:

An even greater threat to mankind is that this technology will not merely be used passively to document existing genetic makeup but will be used actively and aggressively to create new sub—races of human beings specialized to perform certain tasks. Naturally—created children will find themselves competing against genetically—modified people that are stronger, faster, smarter, less constrained by feelings of empathy and more disease and stress resistant.

Although Wells doesn’t say this explicitly, I’m sure he knows about these sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories about the HGP. They’re all over the crankosphere.

I’ve written about the HGP before and how perhaps its potential for immediate cures was overhyped. Science is messy and doesn’t yield up its secrets that easily, particularly given how massively, incredibly complicated the human genome is, a complexity that the ENCODE project has reminded us of once again. Twelve years after the results of the HGP were published, only now are we starting to see the potential for uses of the fruits of the HGP.