A Machine to Make a Future

A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles

Paul Rabinow
Talia Dan-Cohen
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt4cg9rx
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  • Book Info
    A Machine to Make a Future
    Book Description:

    A Machine to Make a Future represents a remarkably original look at the present and possible future of biotechnology research in the wake of the mapping of the human genome. The central tenet of Celera Diagnostics--the California biotech company whose formative work during 2003 is the focus of the book--is that the emergent knowledge about the genome, with its profound implications for human health, can now be turned into a powerful diagnostic apparatus--one that will yield breakthrough diagnostic and therapeutic products (and, potentially, profit). Celera's efforts--assuming they succeed--may fundamentally reshape the fabric of how health and health care are understood, practiced, and managed.

    Presenting a series of interviews with all of the key players in Celera Diagnostics, Paul Rabinow and Talia Dan-Cohen open a fascinating window on the complexity of corporate scientific innovation. This marks a radical departure from other books on the biotech industry by chronicling the vicissitudes of a project during a finite time period, in the words of the actors themselves.

    Ultimately, the authors conclude, Celera Diagnostics is engaged in a future characterized not by geniuses and their celebrated discoveries but by a largely anonymous and widely distributed profusion of data and results--a "machine to make a future."

    In their new afterword, Rabinow and Dan-Cohen revisit Celera Diagnostics as its mighty machine grinds along, wondering, along with the scientists, "what constitutes success and what constitutes failure?" The pathos of the situation turns on how one poses the question as much as how one answers it.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4966-6
    Subjects: Anthropology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Overture A MACHINE TO MAKE A FUTURE
    (pp. 1-12)

    In 1999 there was unanimity of opinion within the community of molecular biologists that the number of genes in the human genome was around 100,000.¹ Scientists we questioned before the completion of the genome project dismissed queries as to whether this figure could be substantially wrong. When the human genome was at last sequenced, however—a monumental technological achievement—the figure came down substantially. The announcement, in 2000, that there appeared to be fewer than 30,000 came as a surprise. Many scientists immediately claimed that the numbers were not biologically significant. More reflective scientists are already engaged in debates over...

  4. Chapter One ENDING AND BEGINNING
    (pp. 13-37)

    Confronted with an apparently deadlocked and frustrating situation, actors have a number of possible courses of action. The economist Albert Hirschman developed an elegant typology of such options.¹ The first is one of “voice”: the actors remain in the troubled situation but actively seek to propose alternatives. By so doing, they affirm their fundamental loyalty to the current order of things but express their dissatisfaction with it. By affirming their loyalty, they legitimate their criticisms as being in the interest of the organization, product, or party. A second alternative is to remain loyal to the organization, product, or political party...

  5. Chapter Two THE STATE OF THINGS AT CELERA DIAGNOSTICS, EXPLAINED TO INVESTORS AND TO ANTHROPOLOGISTS
    (pp. 38-61)

    A company can communicate with investors through any of several different genres. Each genre has constraints and preconditions that substantially define its boundaries, and each requires a particular set of skills for its successful performance. One constraint, however, is common to all genres of formal communication with potential investors: a rather impressive series of disclaimers about the truth content of what is presented.

    The boilerplate is provided by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Thus, much of this cautionary language is basically identical from company to company. These disclaimers operate in a discursive space where the subjunctive reigns: things may or...

  6. Chapter Three THE MACHINERY AND ITS STEWARDS
    (pp. 62-96)

    In his magisterial book The Social History of Truth, the historian of science Steven Shapin informs us that in 1680 Robert Boyle published the second part of his Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical: Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air. This book, Shapin tells us, was in most respects an unremarkable extension of Boyle’s researches of the previous twenty years. What was remarkable however, was that in the preface Boyle writes that his trusted technician, Denis Papin, had done most of the work. “I gave him the freedom to use his own [pump], because he best knew how to...

  7. Chapter Four ETHICAL AND SOCIAL CONSULTANCY
    (pp. 97-110)

    Social relations are made, not given; this truism carries even more weight when such relations are forged in relatively uncharted domains where new institutional practices are being formed, as is the case with Celera Diagnostics. Social relations in such institutions are freighted with distinctive challenges. It is not a question of starting totally anew but rather of examining existing forms—for example, of trust and confidence between researchers—dividing those forms into smaller units, evaluating the utility and worth of each unit, and then assembling those considered essential, along with new ones relevant to the situation, into relationships and institutions...

  8. Chapter Five CONFIDENCE AND TRUST
    (pp. 111-143)

    Celera Diagnostics, like all of its competitors, has a busy legal team. From negotiating and drafting contracts for the use of each sample set to submitting patent applications for the components of products still in the research phase, the company’s legal team operates in many different domains. Like a disease group head, Victor Lee, who oversees the legal team, is both a strategist and a technician. Legal procedures can be approached a number of different ways. The terms on which Celera will sign contracts, the content and quantity of discovery that the company deems sufficient to justify a patent, the...

  9. Chapter Six MODELS ORIENT, TECHNOLOGIES PERFORM, SAMPLES SPEAK (OR VICE VERSA)
    (pp. 144-168)

    Celera Diagnostics has multiple disease groups. We hesitated about whether or not to include a narrative of one or more of these groups in our chronicle. Over the course of the first six months of 2003, the Alzheimer’s group was the front-runner in terms of collecting samples and identifying SNPs. As we monitored this work, and that of other groups to a certain degree, the complexity of clinical detail and its interpretation was constantly before us as a narrative challenge. The challenge consisted in pondering how much technical detail would be understandable to a broad audience. We knew that intense...

  10. Chapter Seven SUMMER 2003
    (pp. 169-186)

    We interviewed James Devlin again on July 24, 2003. As a change of pace, this section will be more summary than direct quotation. Devlin explained some of the technical challenges—such as getting twenty-five different PCR reactions to function in a single tube and then have the amplified product attach to specially prepared beads so they could be read by a laser and genotyped by software. We talked about the details of the coagulation cascade in thrombosis events that is essential to understanding the complex biology of blood clotting. We talked about the SNPs that have been identified to date...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 187-202)

    When Celera Genomics undertook its own sequencing project to compete with the U.S. government and international consortium’s human genome project, there were so many untested aspects to their approach that it was hard, if not impossible, to predict how long it would actually take to complete a credible sequence. The rapid pace of progress caught everyone by surprise, including most of the scientists involved in both the public and the private efforts, forcing all the competitors into a game whose timing and climax they could not control.¹ Tempers flared, hormones raged, work days extended even later into the night, cell...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. 203-204)
  13. Appendix A CORPORATE HISTORY
    (pp. 205-206)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 207-210)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 211-215)