Dangerous Ways to Play with Energy Metabolism

Every cell uses the molecule ATP as a source of energy, whether it’s a bacteria or a cell in your body. Last week, scientists at Scripps Research Institute identified the way a short chemical dials up ATP production. The chemical is attached to the ribonucleic acid (that is, transfer RNA) created from the gene responsible for producing ATP in a species of common bacteria.

The chemical works by binding to ATP molecules. If left unbound, the transfer RNA continues to its appointed rounds in creating energy. But if the chemical binds an ATP molecule, the transfer RNA does nothing and no additional energy is produced. So when ATP is low (that is, when the cell needs energy), lots of transfer RNA molecules are unbound and so go on to produce lots of ATP. On the other hand, when the cell has lots of ATP and so has lots of energy available, most of the RNA is bound and doesn’t produce anything.

It’s a simple mechanism for explaining energy metabolism in cells. Good to know, but the Scripps researchers go on to talk about how this new discovery offers a new way to produce antibiotics: simply inject a drug that acts like ATP (but, of course, isn’t) so the chemical binds it, shuts down the transfer RNA, and chokes off energy production. The disease-causing bacteria then starves to death.

This look-what-cool-stuff-we-can-do-with-our-discovery is a common feature of both scientific journal articles and reports on research in the media: nice to know, but what can you do with it? It’s justification of science by the technologies it can produce. And those technologies fall into well-defined paths, mostly having to do with making money.

But there’s a second problem lurking here. As with old-style antibiotics, drug companies have to make sure this new-style antibiotic doesn’t kill beneficial bacteria your health depends on or the cells that make up your organs that your health also depends on. Of course, those drug company folks are such geniuses I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.

And that’s not all.

The Scripps researchers hold out the promise of using similar methods in treating disorders of the human energy metabolism, which would include diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. They propose a drug that shuts down ATP production in your cells, attacking metabolic disorders at the cellular level. I hope you are as alarmed by this as I am.

The technology this research promotes is the manipulation of gene expression using drugs. It is cut from the same cloth as genetic engineering—as in “genetically modified organism,” a topic of increasing concern and political activism. The Institute for Responsible Technology offers a full feast of critical analyses on the health threats and dodgy science behind this technology.

The upshot is that intervening in the chemistry of energy metabolism is playing with fire.

Yet another mistake is the basic approach that looks to treat immune challenges and disruptions to energy metabolism as being about chemistry, whether dangerous or benign. That approach completely misunderstands the problem and its causes.

Instead of attacking chemicals and cells, we should be asking how to work with organs or the entire organism or the organism’s biological and social environment. A recent example is research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Scientists demonstrate how childhood adversity affects immunity and genes responsible for it throughout life.

In other words, the cause and the treatment of impaired immunity are about the organism, its environment, and how the two develop together and not about the manipulation of the underlying chemical mechanisms. That’s not to say that understanding the mechanisms of impaired immunity and metabolic disruption are irrelevant. But that understanding is about chemicals and cells, not about you. After all, it’s you who gets sick or becomes diabetic, not your cells.

The Scripps research illustrates two dangerous ideas. The first is this confusion in both the scientific and popular literature that health and illness are reducible to chemical processes. The second is that science is justified by the technologies that issue from it. These combine in the belief that manipulation of genes (which means manipulation of the chemicals DNA and RNA) through drugs and genetic engineering paves the path to well being.

We’re not reducible to our chemistry

Those illusions hide the fact that the practice of science and the development of technology are social processes. The current obsession with all things genetic—in science, technology, and popular culture—is an artifact of a social process. It is a social process taking us down a dangerous path.