http://www.thenation.com© 2001 The Nation Company,
FEATURE STORY | Special Report
by JACKIE STEVENS
Scientists as well as financial analysts caution that gene therapies may
never come to fruition. If they do, Dr. Muin Khoury, director of the Office of
Genetics and Disease Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control, believes
they will be useful only for a handful of rare diseases. A Motley Fool
financial columnist tells millions of readers, "There's no reason why the
average investor should be invested in biotechnology companies. None."
Yet the American Museum of Natural History's "Genomic Revolution" recently
announced: "By the year 2020 it is highly possible that the average human life
span will be increased by 50 percent; gene therapy will make most common surgery
of today obsolete; and we will be able to genetically enhance our capacity for
Also out of step is "Paradise Now," a genetically themed art show in the
midst of a national tour. Considering that today's biotechs are largely showing
bottom lines more akin to failed dot-coms than the next Microsoft, glitzy and
well-covered extravaganzas like "The Genomic Revolution" and "Paradise Now" seem
like a gift to the bioindustry that money couldn't buy.
Or could it?
In an elaborate effort to insure that the genetic icon will not lose its
luster, an international group of profit-minded and ideological biotech
advocates has been pushing self-serving and, critics say, error-laden
predictions in innocuous mainstream and even avant-garde exhibit halls, books
and websites. Vital to the plan's success, according to its architects, is that
the influence behind these productions remain hidden.
The strategy of idea laundering was first proposed by Burson-Marsteller, the
world's largest public relations firm, in a 1997 memorandum written for
EuropaBio--a consortium of pharmaceutical and food companies, including
Genencorp, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Monsanto and Nestle--and obtained by Greenpeace.
"In order to effect the desired changes in public perceptions and attitudes, the
bioindustries must stop trying to be their own advocates," the memo reads. "That
approach often works in the policy world. It quite demonstrably hasn't worked
and won't work in the sphere of public perceptions." The memo, authenticated by
a Burson-Marsteller spokesperson, urges bioindustries to advance their message
by proliferating "symbols eliciting hope, satisfaction, caring and
self-esteem"--just like those appearing in the art and museum shows.
One effort that appears to conform with those principles is now at the
American Museum of Natural History. The major outside funder for "The Genomic
Revolution" is the Lounsbery Foundation, headed by Dr. Frederick Seitz. "I was
on the board of the museum for many years and said you need to have a good
exhibit on DNA," he told me. The reason? "Enthusiasm for [genetic technologies]
needed to be boosted a bit."
So accustomed to secrecy is the Lounsbery Foundation, which funds
corporate-friendly science policy centers including the Atlantic Legal
Foundation and the George C. Marshall Institute (another organization Seitz
chairs), that its executive secretary, Marta Norman, expressed irritation that
AMNH president Ellen Futter had not honored Norman's request for anonymity for
"The Genomic Revolution" as, she said, Futter had done on past occasions. Norman
told me, "I thought [the exhibit] was magnificent, except when I saw our name on
the wall there." Seitz told me that the Lounsbery Foundation contributed about
$500,000 for "The Genomic Revolution." Futter and director of media Anne Canty
refused to reply to repeated requests for the exhibit's total budget or to
discuss the museum's position on secrecy.
The exhibit begins in a dark room aglow with video loops of talking heads
refracted through Plexiglas, seemingly coming from nowhere. But the signage that
steals your attention repeats text also appearing in the brochure regarding
biotech's ability to enhance life expectancy and conquer disease.
Rob DeSalle, a molecular biologist and the exhibit's curator, told me he did
not believe the sign's statements, but that veracity wasn't his intention: "It
was designed to get people to turn the corner." Some take issue with that view.
"When you're presenting an exhibit under the pretense of scientific accuracy you
have an ethical responsibility to be careful," said Mary Coffey, assistant
professor in the museum studies program at New York University, adding, "The
American Museum of Natural History is an authoritative institution of knowledge
and research. Entertainment is never supposed to eclipse its educative values."
Dr. George Annas, chair of the department of health law at Boston University,
said he disliked the show's "rah-rah" tone. "Genetics have nothing to do with
enhancing life expectancy," he said, adding, "Clean air, clean water, not
smoking--all those things really have an impact. When it comes to longevity,
nurture is much more important than nature."
The propaganda runs throughout the show: "You may be born with your genes,
but that doesn't mean you can't change them," says one exhibit. "Fixing genetic
malfunctions by repairing 'flaws' in the DNA code--using a technique called gene
therapy--is no longer science fiction," says another. But when I asked Bruce
Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, to comment on gene
therapy breakthroughs, he said dryly, "I didn't know there'd been any." DeSalle
himself agrees that while there are several hundred ongoing experiments, not a
single one has proven that human gene therapy will offer permanent relief
without side effects.
DeSalle said he was familiar with gene-therapy research failures, including
the 1999 death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger in a study at the University of
Pennsylvania and the aggressive and irreversible advance of Parkinson's disease
among patients in a clinical study who had their heads bored with holes and
injected with fetal tissue cells, an account of which appeared in The New
England Journal of Medicine this past March, a couple of months before his
exhibit opened. Dr. Paul Greene, at the Columbia University College of
Physicians and Surgeons and a researcher in that study, told the New York
Times of the awful symptoms the therapy caused: "They chew constantly, their
fingers go up and down, their wrists flex and distend." Green continued, "It was
tragic, catastrophic...a real nightmare." When asked why the exhibit avoided
these alarming examples, DeSalle said they were "too complicated."
"Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution" also upholds the
Burson-Marsteller goal of concealing corporate allegiance. Not mentioned on the
accompanying billboards, the full-page ads in national media or the curatorial
text accompanying its opening last year in New York is that the sponsors hope
the show, now on tour at Skidmore College (September 18, 2001-January 6, 2002),
will help biotech companies enhance their image. While companies like
Affymetrix, Orchid BioScience, Variagenics and Noonan/Russo Communications--a
biotech public relations firm--lurk among the sponsors of "Paradise Now," the
"man behind the curtain," as one curator called him, is Howard Stein. Stein, who
led the Dreyfus Corporation and is credited by some as the father of the
money-market fund, is known for his marketing savvy and bragged to me about his
awareness of biotech's lucrative potential: "My luck in the world is by being
aware of things that have a future." One of the show organizers told me Stein
confided to her that he "knew to invest in biotech stocks because he always put
his money where he sees the government investing." In addition to putting up
what sources close to the show estimate was more than $500,000 for "Paradise
Now," Stein has sponsored gene photography shows in New York City and Santa
According to the "Paradise Now" brochure, "The major benefits of sequencing
the human genome are yet to come. Medicine will be transformed, diagnoses will
be refined and side-effect-free drugs will target specific diseases, working the
first time they are administered." Not only that: "Biotechnology will
be...increasing the nutritional value of crops and making them easier to
grow"--a point disputed by health and environmental experts.
Natalie Jeremijenko, on the faculty of the mechanical engineering department
at Yale University, called "Paradise Now" a "corporate snow job and an
embarrassment." Of her "One Tree" project in the show, she said, "It doesn't
serve my piece to be framed in this way." Her installation presents six trees
cloned from the same source but revealing significant differences in appearance.
Even when raised under conditions far more similar than those that humans
encounter, these simple, genetically identical organisms still vary markedly, a
point about contingencies of genetic expression that Jeremijenko hopes will
undermine genetic reductivism. However, the show's overwhelmingly
genetic-determinist message, Jeremijenko complained, leads viewers to infer
mistakenly that the trees differ because they were exposed to radically
"Paradise Now," like Stein's other genetic promotional investments (for
example, www.geneart.org and the Gene Media Forum), is funded by his charitable
organization, the Joy of Giving Something, which means both that Stein receives
a tax write-off and that his involvement is not publicly recorded. The "Paradise
Now" curators on the JGS payroll are organizing other art projects on genetics
as well as grants to artists who do work in this area. As Stein told me, "This
is just the beginning."