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Published: February 24, 2009

 
 

William Haseltine: The Thought Leader Interview

A molecular biologist and entrepreneur sees green as the next wave of the genomic revolution.

Photograph by Peter Gregoire
When most people think of the Human Genome Project — the scientific research that produced the first map of the genetic makeup of the human species — they think of it as a new knowledge base with the potential to transform modern medicine. And indeed, since the 1990s, the field of human genomics has helped biotechnology researchers identify life-threatening diseases, slow the aging process, and create more effective drugs. It is even possible today to construct human organs biologically to replace damaged ones. These organs are not artificial; they are made of a person’s own cells. The implications for human health and well-being are immense. But what if the benefits of genomic research turned out to be much broader, with equally immense implications for the global economy and our natural environment?

Making that sweeping proposition seem credible has been a recent mission for William A. Haseltine, president and founder of the William A. Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. Haseltine has been at the vanguard of discoveries in molecular biology and the commercialization of bio­technologies for more than three decades — as a medical school professor, entrepreneur, and health-care philanthropist.

In 1992, Haseltine founded Human Genome Sciences Inc. (HGSI), one of the first biopharmaceutical companies to patent human genomic sequences for medical use. He coined the term regenerative medicine to describe the use of natural human substances, such as genes, proteins, and stem cells, to regenerate diseased or damaged human tissue. As a professor at Harvard Medical School from 1976 to 1993, he was part of a team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that led the race to discover how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) compromises, and ultimately destroys, the human immune system. His laboratory determined the genomic sequence of HIV, and Haseltine developed many of the tools that have led to successful combination chemotherapy for the treatment of AIDS.

After retiring as CEO of HGSI in 2004, Haseltine focused his attention further on developing life-saving drugs and medical devices and making them accessible. Al­though he still believes genomics holds great promise for medicine, he questions the market potential of presymptomatic genetic testing and acknowledges that the commercialization of drugs has been more difficult than was expected. At the same time, Haseltine is a passionate advocate of “green” genomics. He foresees new applications of “synthetic biology” for healing the earth, for example, by using gene splicing and microbial cultivation in seawater to create a carbon-neutral source of energy from sunlight.

In October 2008, strategy+business sat down with Haseltine at the dining room table in his 86th-floor New York City apartment. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, with views both of Manhattan’s dense material labyrinth and the faraway Catskill Mountain greenery, we spoke of the changes that biotechnology will bring — and the uncertainties of our political, cultural, economic, and uniquely human responses.

S+B: Where are the most important advances in genomics emerging?
HASELTINE: The major benefit of genomic science thus far has been for humans. But in the long run, it is not just for humans. It is of humans. Through the genomic revolution we are opening up all the genomes of life for our perusal, and few people have thought through the implications.

Medicine will still be important going forward; every week brings a few new genomes into our knowledge banks. But I don’t think medical applications will be the major use for investment dollars. The next revolution is going to be about en­ergy, agriculture, and materials science. That, I think, is going to surprise people. Most of life on Earth is invisible. From the bottom of the sea at the hot sea vents, to the dirt under our city streets, there’s an enormous range of microorganisms that play fundamental roles in shaping the course of life everywhere. Now, genetic science allows re­searchers to intervene at that level.

 
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