Book Review: NEXT

NEXT is a novel by Michael Crichton. Or atleast it claims to be. It has a disorganized plot, too many characters with too little characterization and gratuitous sex. Just about two weeks after reading it, I can hardly remember the characters or their roles in the plot. The main plot describes the efforts of a biological research company engaged in creating genetic drugs to recover some cells that could be used to fight cancer. The cells have been obtained during a routine treatment and the patient is unaware that his cells are special. The doctor who treats him discovers that the cells are special and continues his research without informing the patient. When he decides to commercialize the cells, the patient sues his company but loses the case. He then gets an offer from a competitor for his cells and goes into hiding. Meanwhile the cell samples are stolen and the company attempts to obtain cells from the patient’s daughter and grandson, providing enough material for all the action. There are also some sub-plots. There is a researcher who discovers a “maturity” gene, accidentally gives it to his drug addicted brother who comes out of his addiction, then tries out the gene on some other people, only to discover that the gene actually causes premature ageing and death. There is another researcher who inseminates a female chimpanzee with his own sperm with some genetic process (I don’t recall the details) and lands up with a humanzee kid, resembling a chimpanzee in appearance but capable of human speech. He takes the kid home and sends him to school disguised as a child with some rare medical condition. Overall, the plot is somewhat incoherant and one has to make an effort to remember the characters when they reappear after a few pages. As a novel Airframe was much more engaging and Prey was a lot more exciting even though the plot in Prey was much worse. (Airframe and Prey are the only other novels by Crichton that I have read). If NEXT were just a novel, it would be a waste of time. But NEXT is more than a novel. It raises serious questions about patent laws in the domain of genetics, intellectual property rights, what it means to own ones body, commercialization of genetic research, role of universities and government in research etc. In fact, Crichton has a 7 page note at the end of the novel, explaining his views on these issues. Since one of the purposes of this novel (perhaps the primary purpose) is clearly to raise these issues, let me present a summary of some of the issues from the novel and Crichton’s views.

Crichton presents a world that is almost out of control, a world in which the state of the art in genetics has far surpassed the state of the relevant laws. Here are some examples:

The lawyer representing the doctor and his research company tells the patient’s daughter after winning the case, that it would be futile for the patient to appeal the ruling. “UCLA is a state university. The Board of Regents is prepared, on behalf of the state of California, to take your father’s cells by right of eminent domain.”

The CEO of the research company wants a divorce and custody over his children but his wife doesn’t. His wife’s grandfather died from a fatal genetic disease and there is a chance that she might have it too. The CEO’s lawyer demands that the wife be genetically tested and gets a court order. The wife is unwilling to be tested since a discovery that she carries the disease would ruin her life.

An insurance company cancels a person’s coverage based on some genetic information about his father who died in circumstances that caused a legal enquiry. Someone at the company that performed the genetic tests says “Anyway the son is saying he did not authorize the release of genetic information about himself, which is true. But if we release the father’s information, as we’re required by state law to do, we also release the son’s, which we’re required by state law not to do. Because his children share half the same genes as the father. One way or another, we break the law.”

“The COX-2 inhibitor patent fight was famous. In 2000 the university of Rochester was granted a patent for a gene called COX-2, which produced an anzyme that caused pain. The university propmptly sued the pharmaceutical giant Searle, which marketed a successful arthritis drug, Celebrex, that blocked the COX-2 enzyme. Rochester said Celebrex had infringed on its gene patent, even though their patent only claimed general uses of the gene to fight pain. The university had not claimed a patent on any specific drug.”

Op-Ed commentary: “Columbia University researchers now claim to have found a sociability gene. What’s next?… In truth researchers are taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge… Geneticists will not speak out. They all sit on the boards of private companies, and are in a race to identify genes they can patent for their own profit…”

At the end of the novel, Crichton presents his views in the form of a 5 point course of action

1. Stop patenting genes: Crichton writes that genes are a fact of nature and such cannot be owned or patented.

2. Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues: Crichton writes that there should be legislation to ensure that patients can control the purpose for which their tissues are used.

3. Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public: Crichton suggests (not very clearly or convincingly) that there should be some genuinely independent verification of findings and full disclosure of research data.

4. Avoid bans on research: Crichton essentially argues that “To the best of my knowledge there has never been a successful global ban on anything. Genetic research is unlikely to be the first.”

5. Rescind the Bayh-Dole act (an act permitting university researchers to sell their discoveries for their own profit, even when that research had been funded by taxpayer money): Crichton laments that thirty years ago, universities provided a scholarly haven, a place where disinterested scientists were available to discuss any subject affecting the public. Now universities are commercialized, the haven is gone and scientists have personal interests that influence their judgement. Also “Taxpayers finance research, but when it bears fruit, the researchers sell it for their own institutional and personal gain, after which the drug is sold back to the taxpayers.”

I agree with points 1, 2 and 4 and strongly disagree with points 3 and 5. In fact I believe he has got the issue backwards.

In his support for point 3, Crichton writes “Government should take action. In the long run there is no constituency for bad information. In the short run, all sorts of groups want to bend the facts their way. And they do not hesitate to call their senators, Democratic or Republican. This will continue until the public demands a change.” This is true but his conclusion doesn’t follow. An “independent agency” in charge of verifying findings has to be under the control of politicians who will be all too willing to oblige the groups who who want to bend facts in exchange for backing. This phenomenon is not new at all. It is called lobbying. Requirements for disclosure are even more ridiculous than bans. You can force a person from doing something with limited success. How do you force a person to disclose what no one else knows? And most importantly, government has no moral right to <i>require</i> someone to do anything. Men are not slaves.

About the Bayh-Dole act, again Crichton has the facts right and the conclusion wrong. Universities are certainly commercialized today. And researchers who are funded by public money and allowed to make private profits certainly act in unscrupulous ways. The incentives are definitely wrong. But the solution is not to de-commercialize research. That is neither possible nor desirable. It ignores the context of why the act was passed in the first place. It was passed because non-commercial research does not work.

Describing a character who is a director of NIH (National Institutes of Health), another character says: “Rob’s a major player at NIH, He’s got huge research facilities and he dispenses millions in grants. He holds breakfasts with congressmen. He’s a scientist who believes in God. They love him on the Hill. He’d never be charged with misconduct. Even if we caught him buggering a lab assistant, he wouldn’t be charged.” and again “It was classic Rob Bellarmino. Talking like a preacher, subtly invoking God, and somehow getting everyone to push the envelope, no matter who got hurt, no matter what happened. Rob can justify anything. He’s brilliant at it.” The solution to unscrupulous researchers (in as much as the problem can be “solved”) is not to have more such men like Rob. It is to make them impossible, or more precisely to make it impossible for them to enjoy political clout and arbitrary powers to grant millions in grants. It is to divorce research from government.

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7 Responses

  1. “NEXT is a novel by Michael Crichton. Or atleast it claims to be. It has a disorganized plot, too many characters with too little characterization and gratuitous sex.”
    I think over the last few years Crichton started paying more attention to the issues involved (environment, AGW FUD; nanotech, ai, swarms; gene patenting, biotech) rather than the plot – State of Fear, Prey, Next. That explains why I can neither remember the plot in depth nor the characters. Barring a few exceptions, I never seem to be able to remember the names of the characters in any book, but the plot – always; not the case with Crichton’s last few books.

    “Crichton presents a world that is almost out of control, a world in which the state of the art in genetics has far surpassed the state of the relevant laws.”
    Except his thriller novels, not all of which I have read – The Great Train Robbery, Rising Sun, Disclosure, Airframe etc, nearly every work of his revolves around mankind, or at least some men, lacking foresight when it came to understanding the power of technology and its use. Some fellow called him a Luddite, probably in jest. He was no Luddite; he just warned people against stupidity.

    “I agree with points 1, 2 and 4 and strongly disagree with points 3 and 5. In fact I believe he has got the issue backwards.”
    I think he tried to provide solutions ‘within’ the framework of present day American society – Big government, public universities and all. But as you say later on with reference to your solution – “in as much as the problem can be ‘solved'”, government interference is no solution.

    Crichton’s books; according to me (of the books I have read) The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Jurassic Park and The Lost World are his best works as far as the plot goes. The preaching, if any, has to be accompanied by a meaty plot. Unfortunately, he lost it in the 21st century.

  2. Nice review. I guess Crichton just threw up possible scenarios and then gave his point of view on how they could be addressed (within the system in USA). If some of his solutions are flawed it is in part because the system itself is flawed.

    You might want to read State of Fear. What NEXT & State of Fear did for me, was open my eyes to issues which I had not considered in depth. A bit like a Wikipedia page. They served as starting points to go figure my own take.

  3. I’d disagree that all gene patents should not be allowed. It really depends on whether there is intellectual property in the gene. IF there is significantly intellectual property it should be allowed, such as the novel modification of an already existing gene.

    The situation was GM organisms is more tricky. The inventor should own the gene in the organism but too often it translates in the patent law as owning an entire organism and prosecuting others for growing a company’s organism even though they aren’t even using the company’s technology that is in the organism (using the technology is sometimes an active vs. sometimes a passive process). This happens to farmers who get prosecuted for growing GM organisms without a license when their crops are accidentally “infected”, for lack of a better term, with transgenes that blow on pollen or seeds that sprout and get mixed in with a farmer’s supply. In my mind, that’s just completely non-objective and wrong. But it’s happening all over the place and these companies are winning these suits. This is tough one. The companies’ rights to that technology should be protected, but too often they are suing people who are not infringing their license knowingly. Back in 2000, half the corn grown in the US got “contaminated” with the Starlink endotoxin because farmers did not follow spacing directions. It is quite difficult to figure out exactly how these issues would be resolved in objective courts of law.

    That said, I’m completely opposed to the current patent laws allowing patents on genes with ZERO intellectual property. And that’s what most of the patents are. It’s utterly absurd. Should I be able to patent the element boron because I was first to discover it and can think if a way to use it? No. Yet that is exactly what is happening. The patenting of natural entities. Not just genes. Actual varieties of organisms.

    Again there are grey areas where an objective solution is not entirely clear. What about an element not known to occur on earth that is “made in the laboratory” and is short-lived like many of the elements with higher atomic number. Dodgy. I am not sure I want to come down on either side of that one.

    But there are clearly areas where the patent office has gotten it wrong and a retarded five year old could have figured out the right answer. The problem with the US patent office is that it’s obsessed with “economic benefit” as the basis for a patent. Discovering something doesn’t give anyone a intellectual property right to it! Inventing or developing something novel does.

  4. Aristotle,
    “I think he tried to provide solutions ‘within’ the framework of present day American society”
    Quite likely. That is something which troubles me at times but I usually get over it quickly. The thought – what good is it merely writing about things if they can’t be put into practice (in the immediate present). But then it is always better to push ideas that can work than to “do something” when that something involves minor tinkering around with ideas that demonstrably do not work.

  5. Ramesh,
    Thanks. Yes the system is flawed – primarily because patents are granted in pragmatic attempts to further an undefinable public good. And Crichton does not seem to realize that.

  6. Monica,
    Thanks for your detailed response. I yet have to make up my mind fully about these issues. But I do believe (at the moment) that there can be no patents on things like genes, even if they involve novel modification. Just the fact that someone created a new (or modified) gene should not give him a right over the body of another human. Consider a somewhat far-fetched analogy. If someone were to create a thinking, conscious, intelligent machine, would the creator have a right on the machine? I don’t think so.
    As to your example of a “made in a laboratory” element, I am not sure either.
    I hope to start a series on IPR soon. I will be looking forward to your thoughts when I do so.

  7. […] M. presents Book Review: NEXT posted at Applying philosophy to life, saying, “A review of Michael Crichton’s novel […]

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