NEXT by Michael Crichton, MD, Harper, New York, 10022, © 2006, by Michael Crichton, ISBN: 978-0-06-087316-5, 547, pp, $9.95; Five Compact Discs, six hours, performed by Erik Singer, Harper Audio, $14.95.
by Del Meyer, MD
novel is fiction, except for the parts that aren’t.
BioGen Research Inc, a company featured in this novel, is a product of the author’s imagination and should not be understood to refer to any actual company.
The more the universe seems
comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.–Steven Weinberg
Crichton welcomes us to our genetic world, which is fast, furious, and out of
control. He warns us he’s not writing of the world in the future, but the
world as he sees it right now. This is one of Dr. Crichton’s final novels, but
may well be his most important. He is the author of Jurassic Park and State of
Fear; and he is also the creator of the television series ER.
informs us there are only four hundred genes that are different in humans
compared to the chimpanzee. Transgenic creatures (animals with injected human
genes) are a possible occurrence in our time. What these creatures can do is
obviously a figment of Crichton’s imagination, but he makes it very realistic
are introduced to BioGen Research Inc, which is housed in a titanium-skinned
cube in an industrial park outside Westview Village in Southern California.
Majestically situated above the traffic on the 101 freeway, the cube had been
the idea of BioGen’s president, Rick Diehl, who insisted on calling it a
hexahedron. The cube looked impressive and high-tech while revealing absolutely
nothing about what went on inside—which is exactly how Diehl wanted it.
addition, BioGen maintained forty thousand square feet of nondescript shed space
in an industrial park two miles away. It was there that the animal storage
facilities were located, along with the more dangerous labs. Josh Winkler, an
up-and-coming young researcher, preparing to enter the quarters, noticed that
his assistant, Tom Weller, was reading a newspaper clipping from the Wall Street
Journal taped to the wall saying, “Diehl must be crapping in his pants.” We
learn the reason as he reads. . .
France—a team of French biologists isolated the gene that drives certain
people to attempt to control others. Geneticists at the Biochemical Institute of
Toulouse University headed by Dr. Michel Narcejac-Boileau, announce the
“discovery of the ‘Master’ gene which is associated with social dominance
and strong control over other people. We have isolated it in sports leaders,
CEOs, and heads of state. We believe the gene is found in all dictators
Narcejac-Boileau explained that while the strong form of the gene produced
dictators, the milder heterozygous form produced a “moderate,
quasi-totalitarian urge” to tell other people how to run their lives,
generally for their own good or for their own safety.
on psychological testing, individuals with the mild form will express the view
that other people need their insights, and are unable to manage their own lives
without their guidance. This form of the gene exists among politicians, policy
advocates, religious fundamentalists, and celebrities. The belief complex is
manifested by a strong feeling of certainty, coupled with a powerful sense of
entitlement—and a carefully nurtured sense of resentment toward those who
don’t listen to them.”
the same time, he urged caution in interpreting the results. “Many people who
are driven to control others merely want everybody to be the same as they are.
They can’t tolerate difference.”
explained the team’s paradoxical finding that individuals with the mild form
of the gene were also the most tolerant of authoritarian environments with
strict and invasive social rules. “Our study shows that the gene not only
produces a bossy person, but also a person willing to be bossed. They have a
distinct attraction to totalitarian states.” He noted that these people are
especially responsive to fashions of all kinds, and suppress opinions and
preferences not shared by their group.
Josh said. “These guys in Toulouse hold a press conference and the whole world
runs their story about the ‘master gene’? Have they published in a journal
they just held a press conference. No publication and no mention of
publication.” “What’s next, the slave gene? Looks like crap to me,” Josh
replied. “You mean, we hope it’s crap,” as Josh and Tom begin their
routine of taking the compressed-air cylinder, attaching a vial of retrovirus
and having the preselected set of six rats do a 10-second inhalation of the
retrovirus had been bioengineered to carry a gene in the family of genes
controlling aminocarboxymuconate paraldehyde decarboxylase. Within BioGen they
called it the maturity gene. When activated, it seemed to modify responses of
the amygdala and cingulate gyrus in the brain. The result was an acceleration of
maturational behavior—at least in rats. Infant female rats, for example, would
show precursors of maternal behavior, such as rolling feces in their cages, far
earlier than usual. And BioGen had preliminary evidence for the maturational
gene action in rhesus monkeys, as well.
in the gene centered on a potential link to neurodegenerative disease. One
school of thought argued that neurodegenerative illnesses were a result of
disruptions of maturational pathways in the brain.
that were true in Alzheimer’s disease or another form of senility—then the
commercial value of the gene would be enormous.
the story line progresses, Josh has to pick up his druggie brother at the
courthouse to bring him home after their attorney sprung him from jail. When he
arrives at home, he notices the cylinder in his back seat is empty. He looks at
his brother he had brought home and asks him what he did. “I just thought
I’d get a whiff of what I presume was nitrous oxide. Did I do something
wrong?” “You just inhaled virus for a rat.”
another plot, the cell line that BioGen used was obtained by UCLA from Frank
Barnett. As the cell line ages, it is replenished and thus Mr Barnett comes face
to face with the law. BioGen owns the cell line and they can replenish it any
time they need to. Mr. Barnett has no rights to stop them from taking punch
biopsies from six of his organ systems. Barnett becomes a fugitive. He doesn’t
want to give UCLA and BioGen samples. He doesn’t realize their worth—three
billion dollars. He hides from the BioGen bounty hunters. In court, the hunters
are named “Professional fugitive recovery agents” with the purpose of
obtaining cells from Mr. Barnett. When it is difficult to make a citizen’s
arrest on Barnett, an ambulance, with a man in a white coat operating out of a
small room in the back, go after his daughter, Tracy. When she manages to
escape, they pursue her son, Jamie. They pick up a boy who says his name is
Jamie, but just before the punch biopsy, they discover they have taken the wrong
“Jamie.” The “fugitive recovery” has just become a kidnapping. The boy
has to be reunited with his mother before it’s too late.
in France, a parrot that has been given some human genes begins to speak with an
extraordinary vocabulary. “Gerard” is able to originate a sentence, rather
than just repeat it, and learns math, enabling him to help his new owner’s son
do well in school.
in America, a chimpanzee named “Dave,” who a researcher injected with some
of his own genes, begins to talk. He doesn’t look entirely like other
chimpanzees and the scientist takes him home to his family as his “son.”
When he enrolls him in school, it causes a stir until the father convinces
authorities that he has a rare genetic disorder. The chimp-son is allowed to
remain in class.
skillfully weaves several ethical stories into very complicated, sometimes
hilarious, plots with a surprise ending with far-reaching implications and human
gives us a generous bibliography on Genetics, Human Tissue in the Biotechnology
Age, New World Reproductive Technology and the Biotech Revolution, all resources
for the information in this book.
the end of his research for the book, Crichton arrived at the following
conclusions, which he exemplifies in NEXT:
STOP PATENTING GENES
patents might have looked reasonable twenty years ago, but the field has changed
in ways nobody could have predicted. Today we have plenty of evidence that gene
patents are unnecessary, unwise, and harmful. . .
genes are facts of nature. Like gravity, sunlight, and leaves on trees, genes
exist in the natural world. Facts of nature can’t be owned. You can own a test
for a gene, or a drug that affects a gene, but not the gene itself. You can own
a treatment for a disease, but not the disease itself. . .
To argue that a gene is in any way a human invention is absurd. To grant
a gene patent is like granting a patent on iron or carbon. . . Or to patent
noses. . . [Can you imagine] chefs [being] sued for making fragrant dishes
unless they paid the nose royalty? .
patents are bad public policy. We have ample evidence that they hurt patient
care and suppress research. When Myriad patented two breast cancer genes, they
charged nearly three thousand dollars for the test, even though the cost of
creating gene tests is nothing like the cost to develop a drug. Some years ago,
the owner of the gene for Canavan disease refused to make the test widely
available, even though families who had suffered with the disease had
contributed time, money, and tissues to get the gene identified. Now those same
families could not afford the test.
is an outrage, but it is far from the most dangerous consequence of gene
patents. In its heyday, research on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was
inhibited because scientists were unsure who owned the genome—three
simultaneous patent claims had been filed. As a result, research on SARS
wasn’t as vigorous as it might have been. That should scare every sensible
person. Here was a contagious disease with a 10 percent death rate that had
spread to two dozen countries around the World. Yet scientific research to
combat the disease was inhibited—because of patent fears.
the moment, hepatitis C, HIV, hemophilus influenza, and various diabetes genes
are all owned by some entity. They shouldn’t be. Nobody should own a disease.
ESTABLISH CLEAR GUIDELINES FOR THE USE OF HUMAN TISSUES
tissue collections are increasingly important to medical research, and
increasingly valuable. Appropriate federal regulations to manage tissue banks
already exist, but courts have ignored federal rules. Historically, the courts
have decided questions about human tissues based on existing property law. In
general, they have ruled that once your tissue leaves your body, you no longer
maintain any rights to it. They analogize tissues to, say, the donation of a
book to a library. But people have a strong feeling of ownership about their
bodies, and that feeling will never be abrogated by a mere legal technicality.
Therefore we need new, clear, emphatic legislation. . .
notion that once you part with your tissue you no longer have any rights is
absurd. Consider this: Under present law, if somebody takes my picture, I have
rights forever in the use of that photo. Twenty years later, if somebody
publishes it or puts it in an advertisement, I still have rights. But if
somebody takes my tissue-part of my physical body—I have no rights. This means
I have more rights over my image than I have over the actual tissues of my body.
required legislation should ensure that patients have control over their
tissues. I donate my tissues for a purpose. And that purpose only. If later,
someone wants to use them for another purpose, they need my permission again. If
they can’t get permission, they can’t use my tissues. . .
should not fear that such regulations will inhibit research. After all, the
National Institute of Health seems to be able to conduct research while
following these guidelines. Nor should we accept the argument that these rules
impose an onerous burden. If a magazine can notify you that your subscription
has run out, a university can notify you if they want to use your tissues for a
PASS LAWS TO ENSURE THAT DATA ABOUT GENE TESTING IS MADE PUBLIC
legislation is needed if the FDA is to publish adverse results from gene therapy
trial. At the moment, it cannot do so. In the past some researchers have tried
to prevent the reporting of patient deaths, claiming that such deaths were a
. . Bias in published studies has
become a bad joke. Psychiatrist John Davis looked at the trials funded by
pharmaceutical companies in competition for the most effective of five different
antipsychotic drugs. He found that 90 percent of the time, the drug manufactured
by the company sponsoring (paying for) the study was judged superior to the
others. Whoever paid for the study had the best drug. . .
AVOID BANS ON RESEARCH
groups of different political persuasions want to ban some aspect of genetic
research. I agree that certain research ought not to be pursued, at least not
now. But as a practical matter, I oppose bans on research and technology.
can’t be enforced. I don’t know why we have not learned this lesson. From
Prohibition to the war on drugs, we repeatedly indulge the fantasy that behavior
can be banned. Invariably we fail. And in a global economy, bans take on other
meanings: even if you stop research in one country, it still goes on in
Shanghai. So what have you accomplished?
course, hope springs eternal. And fantasies never die: various groups imagine
they can negotiate a global ban on certain research. But to the best of my
knowledge, there has never been a successful global ban on anything. Genetic
research is unlikely to be the first.
RESCIND THE BAYH-DOLE ACT
1980, Congress decided that the discoveries made within universities were not
being made widely available, to benefit the public. To move things along, it
passed a law permitting university researchers to sell their discoveries for
their own profit, even when that research had been funded by taxpayer money.
a result of this legislation, most science professors now have corporate
ties—either to companies they have started or to other biotech companies.
Thirty years ago, there was a distinct difference in approach between university
research and that of private industry. Today the distinction is blurred, or
absent. Thirty years ago, disinterested scientists were available to discuss any
subject affecting the public. Now, scientists have personal interests that
influence their judgment.
institutions have changed in unexpected ways: The original Bayh-Dole legislation
recognized that universities were not commercial entities, and encouraged them
to make their research available to organizations that were. But today,
universities attempt to maximize profits by conducting more and more commercial
work themselves, thus making their products more valuable to them when they are
finally licensed. For example, if universities think they have a new drug, they
will do the FDA testing themselves, and so on. Thus Bayh-Dole has paradoxically,
increased the commercial focus of the university. Many observers judge the
effect of this legislation to be corrupting and destructive to universities as
institutions of learning.
was always of uncertain benefit to the American taxpayers, who became, through
their government, uniquely generous investors. Taxpayers finance research, but
when it bears fruit, the researchers sell it for their own institutional and
personal gain, after which the drug is sold back to the taxpayers. Consumers
thus pay top dollar for a drug they helped finance. . .
All these trends were perfectly clear to observers years ago; no one paid much attention back then. Now the problems are becoming clear to everyone. A good first step toward restoring the balance between academia and corporations will be to repeal Bayh-Dole legislation.