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Editor's Letter


From the Editor

The conception and purpose of the Acumen Journal of Life Sciences.

I have neurofibromatosis, a degenerative neurological disease. This confession can be no surprise to my family or some of my friends, and is of no immediate concern to readers of this publication—and I would not mention my health except to declare a personal interest in the subject of the Acumen Journal of Life Sciences and explain its conception and purpose.

Neurofibromatosis 1, the first of the two neurofibromatoses (and the one I have), is a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow along the nerves of the body. The tumors can grow anywhere: in relatively harmless locations like the stomach or legs, or in less welcome places like the spinal column, the cranial nerves, or the brain. Each tumor is quite painful and, unless removed (which is not always possible), will progressively degrade the nerve it affects.

There is no way to know how many tumors a patient will have over the course of his life: he might have just a few, or he might have thousands. Since each neurofibroma has a small chance of becoming malignant, given enough tumors, it is possible that at least one will metastasize. Neurofibromatosis causes other unpleasant abnormalities: the enlargement and deformation of the bones, a large head, or a twisted spine. In many cases, neurofibromatosis also disfigures the soft tissues of the body: pea-sized neurofibromas grow under the skin, and larger tumors distort the face. Neurofibromatosis often deafens or blinds. Fifty percent of sufferers have moderate to severe learning disabilities.

The factors that influence the growth of neurofibromas are not well understood. Science knows a little: neurofibromatosis 1sufferers have a reduced amount of neurofibrin, a protein that is thought to help control the activity of another protein, called Ras, which regulates cell growth. Without enough neurofibrin, therefore, cells can grow uncontrollably and become tumors.

There are 15 clinical trials around the world that seek to understand why neurofibromas grow and how doctors might retard them. One of the more promising approaches, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, examines whether an experimental drug called r115777, a farnesyl-transferase inhibitor, might interfere with the function of Ras and with other proteins. The Mayo Clinic is studying whether another pharmaceutical, pirfenidone, a collagen synthesis inhibitor, might arrest the growth or reduce the size of neurofibromas.

I have been lucky. I have few symptoms. My health is generally good. But like anyone who is sick, in my fantastic moments I hope for more dramatic treatments. I imagine that stem cell therapy might repair damaged nerves, that gene-silencing techniques could regulate the expression of Ras, or even that a magically safe and effective gene therapy could fix me altogether. It is disturbing to feel oneself the helpless passenger of a damaged vessel; and while preserving an air of imperturbability is no doubt decorous and necessary to self-esteem, it is comforting to know that a repair crew is at work.

Neurofibromatosis has supplied a fascination with the drama of biological sciences, recommended the importance of the subject, and helped me understand the heroism of scientists and the adventurousness of those who worked to commercialize their discoveries.

I was therefore well prepped to consider a publication about life sciences—the industries and scientific institutions that include biotechnology, health care, pharmaceuticals, agricultural biotechnology, biomaterials, and biodefense. Last December, after six and a half years as editor of the high-technology magazine Red Herring, unhappy about the speculative mania that characterized the last years of the communications and computing boom, and numbed by the utter ruin of all the companies we had written about, I wanted to read about businesses that uncomplicatedly made people�s lives healthier, happier, longer, and more productive. I spoke with a small group of journalists and scientists, along with Eric Greenberg, the CEO of Acumen Sciences and now this journal�s publisher (see “Common Sense,” page ix of the Journal, Issue 1) about starting a new kind of journal for the life sciences.

We observed that, while peer-reviewed journals like Science and Nature presented new findings, and popular magazines like NewScientist explained scientific discoveries for a lay audience, there was no publication devoted to the business of life sciences. We believed that the biological revolution that followed the discovery of the structure of DNA, the sequencing of various genomes, the development of myriad techniques to analyze and manipulate genes, and the invention of micro-technologies that made previously inconceivable experiments commonplace would change people�s lives more than computers or the Internet. We contemplated how oral contraceptives liberated millions of women, how protease inhibitors turned a fatal disease into a chronic condition, and how genetically modified crops averted a Malthusian disaster—and scanning prospective technologies, we could only wonder at the future.

You hold the result of that conception. Through the Acumen Journal of Life Sciences, we hope to play a small role in the biological revolution by publishing a journal that will analyze discoveries, innovations, and challenges in the life sciences and health services, and explain their commercial, economic, and policy implications for senior figures in business, academia, and government.

In the Acumen Journal, you will find features like our account of the consequences of restrictions on stem cell research or our prescription for ameliorating aids in Africa; case studies of successful or ill-conceived business strategies; econometric information like private equity investments, drugs in the offing, and financial indices of publicly traded companies; analyses of recent news and synopses of scientific publications; reviews of books; and a photo essay of familiar and some less-familiar faces.

You will read essays by writers like Horace Freeland Judson, the author of The Eighth Day of Creation, the classic account of the origins of modern molecular biology; Freeman Dyson, the physicist and author of The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet; and Sherwin Nuland, the professor of surgery at Yale University School of Medicine and the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life�s Final Chapter. You will find stories by journalists like Stephan Herrera, who has written for the Economist and Forbes; Tom Maeder, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Lancet, Medical Economics, and the New York Times Magazine; and Philip Ross, who wrote for Scientific American and was science editor of Red Herring. The journal will also publish articles by scientists from around the globe.

We will publish five issues in 2003 and eight issues in 2004. I hope our stories are intelligent, original, analytical, and opinionated; and that even if you vehemently disagree with our analyses, you will not think us ill-informed or unfair.

In first conceiving the Acumen Journal of Life Sciences, and later, in selecting and editing the stories for its first issue, and in creating a style for our pages that was at once scientifically literate and broadly appealing, I have often remembered some lines from Spain 1937, by W. H. Auden: “And the investigator peers through his instruments / At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus,/Or enormous Jupiter finished./ �But the lives of my friends. I inquire, I inquire.� ” I feel there are people who inquire on my behalf; and I am grateful.

Welcome to the Acumen Journal of Life Sciences. Begun on the 50th anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick�s discovery of the structure of DNA, our motto is Pro Bono Humani Generis, “For the Good of Mankind.” I hope the stories we publish live up to that tag and that you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing and reporting them.


In Every Issue

Common Sense

By Invitation: Freeman Dyson

Obituary: Dolly

» From the Editor