Maynard Olson on The Future of Genomics
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

Well, crystal balls are always dangerous things to look into. I think that we will start to see on let’s say on a twenty year timetable we’ll start to see the medical benefits that have been promised. Some of the snake oil sales people of the last few years, especially during the late nineties boom tried to—with smoke and mirrors and lots of press releases tried to kind of create the sense that all of medicine was going to be completely different you know within a matter of months or something. It was absurd. But—and there is a common recurrent of sort of backlash, you know, where are the goods? You know, we spent all of this money. Big public investment—supposedly there was all this progress, you know, why don’t we have better treatments for lots of diseases.

Well, the answer to that really is that it takes time. And that expectation are often unrealistic. We’re not going to be able to cure every disease. We’re not going to be able to eliminate disease even though you can find it. You can find ads in magazines where you know—Agilent Technologies says, you know, that at the top of this ladder, you know, looking up a double helix, is a world without disease and that’s a quote from a nationally-run ad. Well, that’s irresponsible. It’s nonsense. And it doesn’t help because it does create a certain rhetoric that is unrelated to reality. But anyway in twenty years you’re gong to start to see major improvements in medicine.

My own personal opinion is that it won’t be this highly personalized medicine that is often discussed. You know where you get your genome sequenced and every person has got very different management. We’re just going to start to see new generations of highly effective therapies that work on most patients with certain conditions. Very substantial subsets of patients and these patients are not going to be identified by, I think, exhaustive genotyping. It’s going to happen the same way it happens today. You know, some physician, a good neurologist treating epilepsy today has got a repertoire of medicines and they don’t understand why some of them work well on one patient and others don’t. But they know how to phase these medicines in and just sort of watch what’s happening. I think it’s going to be hard to improve upon that system. What we need is bigger repertoires and in areas where we don’t have any, any good treatments now. We need good treatments and I think we’ll see that. So that’s the optimistic side.

I think we’re going to learn more than a lot of people will be comfortable with about human nature. There is an idea that, you know, that genetic determinism is sort of a dangerous bogeyman that’s going to be lurking there. And well I think that’s probably right. I think that genes are more deterministic than most people are comfortable with. They’re not absolutely deterministic, but I think we’re going to find that people in significant part are the way they are because of the particular set of genes they have. And I think we’re going to actually understand quite a lot about that.

That is such a big change. I mean such a truly large change in the whole way that humans think about themselves and about each other that I’m not going to try to predict what the social effects will be. I’ll just say that I think objective knowledge is good. And that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. We should be afraid of the people that know which side God is on. And are willing to die to prove their point with no rational framework at all. We have to remember that it’s irrationalism that is the real hazard in life.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.