What will be the scientific breakthroughs of the century? One man aims to scout them out. 

Weird Science

Twenty-five years ago William Dwyer took his first class in futurism, the study of forecasting science and its applications. Today, Dwyer, a marketing specialist with Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories, makes it his business to predict the future of medicine and technology. He is one of the nation's leading experts on such topics as the human genome project, cloning and bionics. Dwyer recently visited Richmond to lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University's Mini-Medical School Series.

Style: What might we expect soon in terms of new approaches to medicine and, specifically, genetics?

Dwyer: There's a physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has just announced … that he and a colleague from Italy who are in-vitro fertilization specialists expect to clone a human child within three years. So while I've been trying to be five years out, here's a violation of my own rule. It looks like an attempt will be made. …

But there are horror stories relative to animal cloning. Dolly, the first cloned adult mammal … involved over 260 attempts of implantation of fertilized embryos. … I would say that the ethical issue is more important than whether or not you can have efficient science getting us there.

Where cloning will have its least controversial application will be the cloning of specific body tissue. That, I think, will have some beneficial effects.

Style: When President Clinton's five-year moratorium on human-cloning experimentation expires in 2002, what do you anticipate the response from the medical and scientific community will be?

Dwyer: I would predict that we're just one year away from that. In the next 12 months, America is likely to be at least as conservative as President Clinton, if not more conservative, on the issues of human cloning. The research likely will not be done with any federal dollars. It might not be done in America. But that does not mean that American science or technology might not be used in another part of the world.

Style: We humans have found that we have about 30,000 genes, not 100,000 — not far off from some plants. What does that say about the complexity of human life in relation to other forms of life?

Dwyer: Well, we set ourselves up a little bit. And so maybe it seems a little humbling to know that we're about twice the number of genes of a fruit fly. But if we hadn't set that number at 100,000, and we had thought it was going to be about 19 [thousand] or 15 [thousand], and it came out to 30 [thousand], we'd be having another reaction. I'm not too worried about how many there are. It doesn't change the complexity and the mystery of human life.

Style: What's next?

Dwyer: The attention is going to move toward the proteins that are made by genes and their role in health and disease. And it won't just be the infectious diseases or diseases of the heart or cancer. It'll also be in mental health. We'll have a better understanding of depression, schizophrenia, possibly, even obesity — maybe addiction. It's a way off but that's where the research is moving.

Style: What development or discovery has really wowed you?

Dwyer: It really is the announcement that scientists were able to clone an adult mammal. [laughs] The Dolly the Sheep announcement rocked my

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