FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Nobelist Kary Mullis of PCR(polymerase chain reaction) fame added another leaf to hislaurels here by winning this year's Distinguished ServiceAward, conferred annually by the Miami Winter BiotechnologySymposium, and Leroy Hood was named the Feodor LynenLecturer, the highest honor the event confers.

Hood, who is chairman of biotechnology at the University ofWashington in Seattle, spoke on the theme "The HumanGenome Project: A Glimpse into the T Cell Receptor Loci ofHumans and Mice."

"I believe we are really at a pivotal inflection point inbiotechnology, marked by a dramatic change in the way weview biology and the practice of modern medicine," he said.

Hood later debated Richard Strohman, professor emeritus ofmolecular and cell biology at the University of California,Berkeley, on "The Limits of Genetic Approaches inBiomedicine." The debate posed the question: Is the "uniquegene/unigene effect" strategy an appropriate approach tounderstanding complex human phenotypes?

Picking up on Hood's "inflection point" of the linear geneticparadigm, Strohman said the linear system led into "the non-linear system dominated by complexity, perhaps chaos." Hestressed that only 2 percent of our total disease load is relatedto monogenic causality and that "the biggest problem ofbiotechnology is to predict polygenic diseases on the basis ofmonogenic logic."

Biotechnology is moving too fast, he added, raising hopes andfears and encouraging patients to demand prematuretechnology.

While agreeing with Strohman on many points, Hood disagreedthat biotechnology is offering too much too soon. The new toolsof genomic analysis can unravel the mysteries of the hyper-complex molecular networks for which Strohman saw noresolution, Hood said. These "hopelessly complicated" networks"will delineate the features for medicine in the future," Hoodadded.

Although he concurred with Hood's concept of complexsystems, Strohman added that "the idea of a single genecausing disease is naive."

Dale Oxender, vice president for biotechnology at Parke-DavisPharmaceutical Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., which sponsorsthe prize, presented the plaque to Mullis on Monday. He is the12th biotechnologist to receive the prize, which was firstawarded in 1985. The symposium has taken place in Miamisince 1977; this year moved to a conference center 10 mileswest of Fort Lauderdale.

Since 1988 the event has been co-sponsored by Bio/Technologymagazine. This year's meeting attracted 695 registrants from27 countries, plus 51 exhibitors.

Mullis said he is now representing Stargene Inc., which intendsto mount celebrities' DNA on trading cards. Mullis toldBioWorld he is not keeping his hand in PCR research. "I amseparating myself severely from that," he said. "Now I'm awriter," he said, denying any research activity at all. He is theco-author of a volume titled PCR, which was launched hereinformally by Birkhauser Publishing Company at a reception onSunday.

In his impromptu interview with BioWorld, Mullis recalled thatwhile developing the PCR technology at Cetus Corp. in the mid-1980s, he reflected that "it's extremely difficult to recognize areally novel innovation. It doesn't come out of the samechannels and it doesn't seem the same as an ordinary,incremental kind of innovation." Mullis said he told the Cetuspatent office at the time (circa 1985): "I don't want to patentthis (PCR). I know it's patentable, because it's a novel sort ofthing, but I don't want to go through this struggle because Idon't think it will be commercially valuable."

-- David Leff Science Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.