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Walter M. Bortz II, M.D. Headshot

Dare to Be 100: Blase About Nobels

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Ho hum, just two more Nobel prizes cluttering up the trophy case.

Last week Stanford researchers garnered two more Nobels to polish their sheen, one in chemistry and one in biology. I noted scarcely a wisp of notice of this on campus.

This indifference took me back to 50 years ago, when after medical residency I was finishing my third year of biochemistry fellowship. My family and I were in Munich at the famous Max Planck Institute for Cellular Chemistry. My professor was Feodor Lynen (Fitzi). He had discovered the important compound acetyl CoA. When the phone call came from Stockholm about the prize, his response was, "I've been expecting this." We toasted a few steins of beer to celebrate. He talked of my research in his acceptance speech, which is as close as I will ever get to this pedestal.

But as Stanford gains two more merit badges, it loses an even bigger prize, as my good friend Chirag Patel just jumped ship and transferred to Harvard. He is hot! He gains a title, an office and grad students, all missing in his Stanford-diminished junior status. Stanford's loss, Harvard's gain.

He is 50 years younger and 10 times as smart than I. I met him several years ago during the finishing of his postgraduate training in bioinformatics. He is a computer wizard, a number cruncher and can measure stuff as tiny as the dust on the subject's jacket, or as generic as the census tract. In my day we didn't have a job description that fits his career.

The remarkable thing about his prodigy is that it grew in an adverse environment. Stanford is generally regarded as the Mother Church of gene technology. It has birthed a number of gene Nobel winners. The present poster boy on all things gene here is Atul Butte, who is master of ceremonies at the innumerable gene TED, etc. conferences. Atul who is another colleague, has mastered the domain of G.W. A.S., gene-wide association studies. GWAS has become a focal point of huge financial and intellectual effort to find the gene that is responsible for everything, diabetes, heart disease, depression, compulsive gambling, freckles, breast cancer, etc. Entire departments at universities and at the NIH are targeted to explore GWAS.

In my view, the promise has not worked out as hoped for. A strong example of this is a local company, 23andMe. It has enjoyed meteoric commercial success marketing the gene complex that presumes to determine your future well-being. "Send us a sample of your spit and we will tell you your future."

An article in the Independent Science News of July 2011 titled "23andMe disproves its own business model," tells how the company that was co-founded by Google founder Sergei Brin's wife, using predictive computer models, did not live up to its early promise.

Such a fall from grace had been widely anticipated. Lewontin's Not in our Genes (1) and Ruth Hubbard's Exploding the Gene Myth (2) book to the same point, predicted the demise of this naïve and simplistic proposition, that genes are our destiny.

It is in this academic surrounding that CJ entered his search. He undertook wonderfully the challenge that the presiding paradigm of the gene was inadequate. He said, "Wait a moment. It is not so simple. Maybe the environment plays an even bigger role." He proposed E.W.A.S., environment-wide association studies. It holds a much larger promise. Consequently, CJ coined a new acronym, EWAS, that holds great hope of fulfilling the failed expectations of GWAS. The term, EWAS. is being rapidly adopted as it more adequately reflects the real world.

EWAS is much much more complex to address than GWAS. This reality was captured by a sentinel paper in Science a few years ago by Nobelist physicist Philip Anderson who wrote that "More is different," different but correct. (3)

I have long husbanded the conviction that the well-being of any animal is far more dependent on its nurture than on its nature. Its lifelong environmental encounters are much more determinative than its pedigree.

It's not the cards you're dealt that matters. It is how you play the hand. I have already conceded a future Nobel Prize to my young brilliant buddy Harvard professor Chirag Patel. I expect it.

REFERENCES
1. Lewontin R., Rose S., Kamen S. Not in our Genes 1988 Pantheon Books
2. Keller R. Exploding the Gene Myth 1999 Beacon Press.
3. Anderson P. Science 1972 ; 177:393-396.