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French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory

French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory

by Paul Rabinow, University of Chicago Press (Manufactured by)

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In 1993, an American biotechnology company and a French genetics lab developed a collaborative research plan to search for diabetes genes. But just as the project was to begin, the French government called it to a halt, barring the laboratory from sharing something never previously thought of as a commodity unto itself: French DNA.


In 1993, an American biotechnology company and a French genetics lab developed a collaborative research plan to search for diabetes genes. But just as the project was to begin, the French government called it to a halt, barring the laboratory from sharing something never previously thought of as a commodity unto itself: French DNA.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Rabinow has written an interesting book about the failed negotiations between a French genetics lab, the Centre d' tude du Polymorphisme Humain (CEPH) and Millennium, an American biotech company that wanted its family DNA data on diabetes and obesity. This book is not about the science of molecular biology--it's a look at how the different ethics of France and America affect the way people and politicians feel about the sanctity of DNA (and blood and organ transfusions). Historical ethical and philosophical discussions, which help explain the French position, are interspersed with a journal of the events Rabinow observed while he was in France in 1994 at the invitation of Daniel Cohen of the CEPH. Rabinow (anthropology, Univ. of California, Berkeley) is the author of French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment and Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology. Recommended for ethics and biotechnology collections.--Margaret Henderson, Cold Spring Harbor Academics, NY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In the course of being a "philosophical observer" to a scientific collaboration between France and the US, the author discovered that, contrary to what most of us would believe, there is indeed a French DNA. In 1993, an American biotechnology company and France's premier genetics lab developed plans for a collaborative effort to discover diabetes genes. At the last minute, the French government refused to allow the French lab to give the Americans French DNA. This exposition of a deal gone wrong illuminates those sites where genetics, bioethics, patient groups, venture capital, and the state meet. The author is professor of anthropology at UC-Berkeley. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
The dated story of a genetics research endeavor in the early 1990s as recounted by anthropologist Rabinow (UC Berkeley). The author was invited to spend part of 1994 at the Centre d`Etude du Polymorphisme Humain (CEPH), a genetics research laboratory in Paris, just as the group was about to form a collaborative effort with an American venture-capital-funded company, Millenium Pharmaceuticals. Unlike American start-up companies, French companies have to struggle harder to be listed on stock exchanges, at least until they prove themselves profitable. The CEPH needed a new influx of capital to continue to grow and fund new research. In the early 90s the CEPH had successfully tackled the problem of mapping the human genome, a project also taken on by the NIH and DOE in the US. They had also used a novel (to the French) technique for raising money, the téléthon. Rabinow begins with the disorganized director of the CEPH, Daniel Cohen, and the details of his decision-making policies and the inner politics of the CEPH. He presents scientists asked to join the CEPH on the basis of little more than an idea that their work might someday be valuable. In one case, a newcomer shows up one morning "only to realize abruptly, and to his dismay, that Cohen had not informed anyone at the CEPH about him." Interspersed with the first-hand accounts of day-to-day activities are discussions of bioethics, background on DNA research, and the search for single genomes that correspond to heriditary disease. Throughout, Rabinow includes enough French to make you think about consulting a phrasebook. Part play-by-play of the internal struggles of a prominent genetics research facility in France, partabstract philosophical debate on genetic issues, this half-baked case study meanders too far off course for its narrative aspirations.

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University of Chicago Press
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French DNA

Trouble in Purgatory

By Paul Rabinow

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-70151-4


In Paris, during the winter and spring of 1994, what was alternately
characterized as a quarrel, a dispute, a struggle, a debate, a battle, or
a scandal simmered and then flared up to a white-hot intensity before
dissipating, as such things tend to do in Paris, as a government
commission was formed to study the matter and the summer vacations
approached. Immediately at issue was a proposal to institute a formal
commercial collaboration between an American start-up biotechnology
company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and France's premier genomics
laboratory, the Centre d'Etude du Polymorphisme Humain (CEPH). During the
early 1990s, the CEPH, led by its dynamic scientific director, Daniel
Cohen, had conceived of and implemented a highly innovative and effective
strategy to map the human genome. Cohen was proud to announce in December
1993 that the CEPH had won the race to produce the first physical map of
the human genome. When he crafted his victory announcement, with the
substantial aid of a New York public relations firm, Cohen made special
efforts not to humiliate the heavily government-subsidizedAmerican
laboratories whom he had just beaten.

Among the leaders of the American genome mapping effort was a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientist named Eric Lander, a
cofounder of Millennium. Daniel Cohen was also one of the cofounders of
Millennium. Scientists from the CEPH had been discussing joint projects
with scientists from Millennium throughout 1993. Scientists from the CEPH
went to Cambridge to visit Millennium scientists and hear of their plans.
The French government had been informed of, and approved, the idea of a
commercial collaboration between the CEPH and Millennium. The core of the
collaboration was to be a project to discover the genetic basis of
non-insulin-dependent forms of diabetes. Diabetes is a major health
problem in the affluent countries, and there is good reason to believe
that insights about diabetes could well be applied to obesity. The public
health implications are important. The potential market is extravagant. In
order to identify genes that might be involved in these or other
conditions, one needs as large a pool of families as possible. An
examination of inheritance patterns of these families would facilitate the
search for so-called candidate genes. Researchers at the CEPH had
assembled a respectable collection of families, some of whose members
suffered from non-insulin-dependent diabetes. Such collections are
valuable, because they are costly and time-consuming to assemble.
Millennium proposed collaborating with CEPH scientists on the basis of the
CEPH's family material. In principle, CEPH scientists were interested in
such a collaboration because Millennium was developing potentially rapid
and powerful new technologies to identify genes (although it was cautious
about entering into this new terrain). Finally, Millennium was well
funded, and the 1990s was a period of budget cutbacks for French science.
A team from Millennium went to the CEPH in February 1994 to finalize the
agreement. Things came apart; confrontation, polemic, and confusion
ensued. The French government moved to block the deal. The problem,
explained the government spokesman, was that the CEPH was on the verge of
giving away to the Americans that most precious of things-something never
before named in such a manner-French DNA.

French DNA's narrative is structured around these events set against the
background of contrastive developments in the United States (the AIDS
epidemic, the biotechnology industry, the Human Genome Initiative), the
great specter of a possible future. In the United States, during the
latter half of the 1970s, intense debate had raged about the safety (as
well as ethical and philosophical implications) of what was then referred
to as "recombinant DNA." An unprecedented moratorium on research devised
and shepherded by leaders of the scientific community succeeded in keeping
government legislation at bay and basically allaying public fears focused
on the safety issue. During the early 1980s, debate shifted to the status
of scientific, commercial, and ethical relationships between university-
and government-based research and the nascent biotechnology industry. By
the end of the decade, in the United States, the landscape had been
effectively reshaped; although debate and discussion continue, a large
biotechnology industry funded by a massive infusion of venture capital and
an equally significant amount of capital from large, often multinational
pharmaceutical companies had become an established force. Millennium was
not atypical of such companies; it was staffed by prestigious scientists
and physicians with affiliations with Harvard and MIT and was initially
funded by venture capital. From their perspective, considering an alliance
with the CEPH seemed strategically astute and perfectly ordinary. They had
interpreted the actions and statements of members of the CEPH during the
months of preliminary contacts and negotiations as indicating that the
French situation was changing in a similar fashion. In fact, this
diagnosis was premature.

Arriving at the CEPH immediately after the announcement of their mapping
victory, I was faced with the question of what should be the focus of my
study. My entry was not a reenactment of the traditional ethnographic
arrival scene on some exotic site. I was already fluent in the language,
had previously lived in France for years, had just completed a
complementary study of an American biotechnology company and the invention
there of a powerful molecular tool, and had immersed myself in the debates
and inquiries swirling around the Human Genome Initiative and its
scientific, technological, ethical, legal, social, political, cultural,
theological, and no doubt other dimensions. The allocation of a percentage
(3-5%) of the American genome budget to social, ethical, and legal issues
made it, in the words of one of its directors, "the largest ethics project
in history." I was intrigued by the extravagance of this phenomenon. There
had been a lot of talk of "the book of life," "the holy grail," and the
like. In the early years, conferences held outnumbered genes localized.
Because the genomic science itself had been successfully cordoned off from
"ethical and social" scrutiny, such scrutiny was reserved only for

At the CEPH, I soon decided that I would not concentrate on the CEPH's
past triumphs. There were two reasons for this: first, I felt that there
would be historians of science who would be better trained to do the
archival work; second, I felt that the "genius" of the CEPH was its
ability to make the next move in a manner that brought the elements into
an innovative assemblage. Hence I decided to concentrate on the four
research projects (aging, cancer, AIDS, parasite genomes) that Cohen had
inserted (some would say imposed) into the margins of the CEPH.
Introducing an anthropologist was a sort of fifth research project. I
plunged first into familiarizing myself with the current molecular
technology in use at the CEPH. Then the Millennium crisis happened. I kept
both the experimental sites and Millennium balls in the air for the
duration of my stay. Other factors intervened such that this book has
taken the shape it has; that is to say, the disruption and its suite of
consequences became the focus of my study.

French DNA's focus is on a singular instance of a multidimensional crisis
in 1994. The elements of that crisis included the felt need to transform
an extremely successful and innovative large-scale scientific and
technological apparatus in the face of international competition; pressing
claims that the work done at the lab (and its associated allies) was of
the utmost consequence not only for the future of French science but for
the future well-being of humanity; acute concerns, widespread in the
French cultural/political milieu, over the legitimate range of
experimentation in the biosciences expressed in a vocabulary of bioethics;
ferocious conflict over potential means of financing the work;
personalized confrontations between leading scientists over what it meant
to be a scientist today, pitting against each other (at a more general
level) contrastive modes of subjectivation of science as a vocation.

French DNA is about a heterogeneous zone where genomics, bioethics,
patients groups, venture capital, nations, and the state meet. Such a
common place, a practiced site, eruptive and changing yet strangely slack,
is filled with talk of good and evil, illness and health, spirit and
flesh. It is full of diverse machines and bodies, parts and wholes,
exchanges and relays. For those mortally ill, or told they are so, all
this discourse, all these diverse things, can produce a good deal of
anxious waiting and solicitation. It can also produce a range of other
effects and affects in the world. I became intrigued by the futures being
carved out of the present. Their representations ranged from ones full of
dangers to others of a potential luminosity. Today, as yesterday,
partisans of both visions abound. Partisans that they are, they find their
antagonists' arrogance, misplaced emphases, failures of nerve, and sheer
blindness trying. Amid all the discord, however, all parties agree that
the future is at stake and that there is a pressing obligation to do
something about it.


Excerpted from French DNA
by Paul Rabinow
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Paul Rabinow is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written numerous books, including Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology and French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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