- The Genealogy of a Gene: Patients, HIV/AIDS, and Race by Myles W. Jackson
In The Genealogy of a Gene, historian of science Myles W. Jackson traces the history of one human gene, CCR5, using it as a means of probing various aspects of the public and private world of biocapitalism. CCR5 proves an appropriate topic, because its history reveals and intersects with many major issues in recent biomedicine, including patenting and commercialization, efforts at personalized medicine, HIV/AIDS drug development, and debates about genetics and race. Historians of science and technology who work on these issues are likely to be already quite familiar with much of the ground covered in this book but will be impressed by the depth and breadth of Jackson's primary source analysis.
Jackson's main argument is that the biocapitalism sector is more diverse in its efforts and motivations than scholars have previously demonstrated. Rather than a clear division in the interests of public and private entities, Jackson seeks to show the multi-faceted considerations of various firms and government institutions. The Genealogy of a Gene comes up somewhat short in this regard, due in part to a lack of explicit and sustained engagement with the previous studies and arguments of other bio-capitalism scholars, which are largely buried in footnotes. As a result, historians not well-versed in this literature will have trouble assessing the strength of Jackson's claim that scholars have oversimplified this history.
Throughout The Genealogy of a Gene Jackson deftly shows the role—often unintentional—of U.S. Government agencies in opening up opportunities that biocapital firms exploited. Most notable was the U.S. Patent Office's (USPTO) hesitance to address human gene patenting, with all of its implications for biomedical research—not to mention its significance for our collective sense of humanity—as being distinct from patents on other chemical compositions of matter. As Jackson describes it, the USPTO's willingness to allow gene patents led to a flood of applications that it could not possibly assess sufficiently. Thus, gene patents were granted based on little or no laboratory work, limited knowledge of protein function, and [End Page 997] sometimes even with inaccurate sequence data: a situation that likely stifled biomedical research.
Jackson also highlights the unintended consequences of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) efforts to encourage more diverse biomedical research populations in the 1990s, a topic previously examined with great skill by Steven Epstein in Inclusion (2007). The introduction of racial categories into biomedical research trials, Jackson suggests, opened up an opportunity for biocapital firms to develop and exploit the hypothetical potential for race-based personalized medicine. This added more fuel to the fire of debates about the genetics of race and also created new marketing opportunities for companies to sell drugs that they claimed were more effective in certain racial populations.
Even for a book on the history of science and technology, The Genealogy of a Gene is heavy on technical jargon. Jackson warns readers about this at the beginning and provides a glossary of terms in the back. Unfortunately, for most readers, this is not likely to be enough to overcome the unfamiliar language, acronyms, and symbols of molecular biology used throughout the book. Exceptions to this challenging reading are chapters 3 and 4, which offer a useful and detailed primer on U.S. and international patent law. Another notable strength of The Genealogy of a Gene is its examination of race and genetics, especially in chapter 8. There is not much new ground broken here, but the overview and engagement with multidisciplinary perspectives on race is quite useful. Jackson beneficially adds CCR5 to the story, among various other problematic instances of racialized efforts to study human diversity and health through genetics.
Jackson also makes an important plea for historians to study and engage with ongoing social debates. Unfortunately, from his own account, it is unclear the extent to which Jackson was actually "the historian at the table while the controversy is ongoing" (p...