JAX President and CEO reflected on the intersection of science, technology and society with Vice President for Advancement during the final JAXtaposition event of the 2021 season.
“We are entering one of the most profound periods of human advancement in the history of mankind and this advancement is based solely on the benefits of science and technology,” said Liu. “But very importantly, science by itself is insufficient unless it's managed well.”
Liu said how we use and manage science and technology will determine whether we thrive or accelerate our demise amidst threats like overpopulation, environmental collapse and conflict.
“Previously, we were harnessing and exploiting nature,” he said. “And when we exploited and depleted one element of nature, most civilizations simply moved on to the next frontier. We have no more frontiers. We have occupied the entire planet and it's now our responsibility.”
The blueprint of life
Liu discussed the stages of human development, from 100,000 BCE when our species was primarily defending against nature, to the industrial revolutions when we began “creating beyond nature” to develop locomotives, airplanes, computers and the internet. “Finally, we're now living in an era of science-driven technologies,” he said. “The fundamental theorems that have been proven now drive the generation of new tools that we use.”
Liu said we are also fundamentally changing our understanding of nature because we have the capabilities to read, alter and write DNA. With these capabilities, he explained, we can conceivably direct evolution that was historically only in the domain of nature.
“If we can read our DNA blueprint (which we can now with whole genome sequencing), we can theoretically understand what makes life forms different from one another - it's the blueprint of life,” he said.
And if we can change the blueprint, Liu continued, we can change the characteristics of any living creature. Today, at JAX and at laboratories throughout the country, for the cost of $1,000 or less, and with a three-day turnaround or less, scientists can read a person’s genome and then divine whether there is risk for particular diseases.
“This information then can be excerpted over time as we learn more and more about what each of this strings of code mean for predictability throughout the life of an individual to define susceptibility to diseases like cystic fibrosis early in life, hyperlipidemia for cardiovascular disease in midlife, and cancer syndromes like colon cancer,” said Liu. “Reading the genome becomes important.”
He cited the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing as a trigger for remarkable growth in the biotech world so that gene therapy, which used to be an esoteric discipline within academia, has now spawned enormous proliferation of companies directed to correcting individual genetic disorders. He also reflected on how these scientific tools could be used to counter infectious diseases like COVID-19 and malaria, and to preserve our food sources.
“Technologies are neutral. Humans decide if they are used for good or for evil,” said Liu. He posed several thought-provoking questions to the audience relative to these topics, including:
- Would you plant genetically engineered strains of wheat that are drought resistant so that drought-stricken countries can survive?
- If gene drive mosquitoes can eliminate malaria, would you authorize its release?
- Would you approve a gene therapy that improves athletic performance? What about gene therapies that improve mobility and cognition in the elderly?
Societal problem-solving, digital twins and public-private partnerships
Three special guests joined the event to ask questions. JAX donor Deborah M. Shlian, M.D., MBA, who participated in the Laboratory’s (SSP) during the summer of 1967, asked which of the components Liu had been discussing - science, society, and technology - was most important. “Society,” answered Liu. “A society has to come to its senses, and begin to talk about the tools of technology and science in an objective manner. We have to agree on what our problems are, and agree to get started in solving those problems.”
JAX donor and SSP alumnus (class of 1969) asked about the notion of a “digital twin” of an organism. “One advantage of having a full digital twin of a mouse is you could then do experimentation, because it's probably easier to simulate than to predict, and the simulation can then allow you to do experiments,” he said. “So I'm curious, do you see that beginning to happen? How far away is it?”
Liu said that we seek to integrate our data from the mouse and data from the human so that we have an organism model that is patterned after what is more humanoid than anything else. “It's not perfect,” he said. “It will have to be on a disease-specific basis because for us to model an entire human being for almost limitless capabilities that we have, would be too daunting. Such a disease specific model may help us predict that if you develop cancer, what is the likelihood of your cancer being of a particular type.”
Lulu Carkhum, SSP alumna from the class of 1974, asked whether Liu expects these necessary advances to come from the private sector or from public funding projects.
“Progressively, it has to be public-private partnerships,” he answered. “It's inevitable. It’s about who does the specific processes better. Government investment in basic research is so vital, not only for cures, but for the economy. But when you move from that discovery to the capability of treating a disease, you need a completely different skillset and different investment vehicles in order to move it into the clinic. This is where the private sector excels.”
Think globally, act locally
Liu concluded by sharing his advice for what we can do as individuals to remain informed citizens. “My personal philosophy is to constantly seek knowledge,” he said. “I urge you to look at reason over ideology. Embrace imperfection, because there will be no perfect solution to anything we do with technologies. We have to have a willingness to be flexible.”
“I'd like to see an earth that is safe, an earth that is flourishing, so that my children and grandchildren will enjoy what I've enjoyed in my lifetime,” he said. “And finally, I think we need to think globally. Observe globally, but act locally. And this is where I'm very proud to have led The Jackson Laboratory for the last 10 years.”
At the end of November 2021, after a through impressive growth, dramatic change and remarkable achievements, Liu will step down as president and CEO. He plans to remain at JAX as a professor where he will continue to lead studying the functional genomics of cancer, with a focus on breast cancer.