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Biomedicine in museums

Why has history of science/medicine and STS largely eschewed proteomics?

Today’s big news in the Copenhagen health and life science community is the £55 mill. (600 mill. DKK) grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to create a brand new center for protein research (proteomics, bioinformatics etc.) at the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences. The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, as it will be called, is planned to open in the autumn of 2008 with a total staff of around 100.

This is great news for Danish health and life sciences. The new center — which will be among the larger ones in the world — will boost research in postgenomics, proteomics and systems biology.

They forgot one important thing, however. When NIH and DOE launched the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, about 3 % of the budget was set aside to the study of the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) raised by the HGP.

The new proteomics projects launched all over the world in the 2000s have not been followed by similar reflective initiatives, however. Why? Part of the reason may be that, with few notable exceptions (e.g., the Lancaster-Cardiff Cesagen-project), historians of science/medicine and STS scholars have not yet discovered that life science research strategies are undergoing a major shift towards studies of the proteome.

And this neglect may in turn have something to do with the fact that proteomics lack that special cognitive and linguistic ‘aura’ that surrounded genomics. Proteins do not contain the ‘code of life’. They are not analogous to computers and information technology. They are not as simple as DNA and RNA molecules. Proteins come in all kinds, forms and sizes, and their functions are extremely variable. Metaphorically, they don’t code for anything, they are not ‘master molecules’; they are being coded, they do everyday cellular work. Whereas genomics was sharp and sexy and another way of thinking physics, proteomics is messy and pedestrian and another way of thinking biology.

And yet proteomics may in fact have a much greater impact on the understanding of health and disease. Genes provide the ultimate but ambiguous hereditary background, whereas proteins are almost always involved in the proximate causes of most diseases.

So proteomics is perhaps in even more dire need of its ELSI programme — or rather a CHAELSI (cultural, historical, aesthetic, ethical, legal, and social issues) programme.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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