Retroviruses, engineering and the future of science  pg. 2

There is not today on the market any such form of “intracellular immunization” against infectious agents (but) in the last couple of years a new method of potentially inhibiting virus growth has appeared, which is called interfering RNAs. They interfere with the growth of a virus in a very potent manner.

So we started to see whether we could adapt this to HIV, by targeting the receptor on the cell. We worked very closely with the laboratory at UCLA run by Irvin Chen. What I call this whole line of work at the moment is “engineering” the immune system. And it raises all the problems that any engineering effort does: How to you make it happen? How to you deliver it? How do you make it safe?

What are some of the forces that will drive biomedical research over the next 20 years?

Baltimore: I think a lot of discovery is going to come from wedding fields that have traditionally been separate. I think there’s a lot of biological engineering that’s going to be done and that’s going to come about from traditional engineers as well as people with nanotechnology skills applying their techniques to biological questions.

Systems biology is looking at biological problems in a holistic way rather than piece-by-piece. It has the strengths and weaknesses of any holistic approach, the strength being that you are looking at things in a new way, and the weakness being that it’s very hard to do controlled experimentation when you have that number of variables around.

But I wouldn’t count out traditional modes of carrying out molecular biological research. The human genome was sequenced and turned up lots of genes, the functions of which we know very little about. So there’s an awful lot of work to be done just to fill out the catalog. And that’s going to turn up some very important and very surprising things.

Varmus: There are incredibly high levels of discovery at the moment. Wherever you turn, the tools are so much more powerful than they were 15 or 20 years ago, thanks to genomics, computer science and the number of ways in which we can make use of models of disease in a variety of organisms. Just about every field is prospering.

I meet with computational people at least once a week and I didn’t used to do that. It’s because we’re using different kinds of tools … that present a density of data that none of us had before. But the basic experimental design is still for the most part unaltered. Sure we use arrays to look at (gene) expression patterns. It broadens our view, but the important work still gets done one gene at a time.

Do you support the NIH “Roadmap,” a reorganization of the National Institutes of Health that is being undertaken by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni?

Varmus: Many of the things in the roadmap are the attempt to bring the NIH together to work as a single institution, something which has always been difficult to do, given the way in which the NIH has grown, and the way in which it has been established by Congress as a very large collection of independent units, more like a confederacy than a real union.

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