News nº 15 | June/July 2010
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100 Years of Medicine: a Historical Perspective [1910-2010] Part III

Manuel Valente Alves
Director of the FMUL Museum of Medicine  

Molecular Biology 

In 1944, in his book What is Life?, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger established the foundations of molecular biology, the area of biology that characterises, isolates and manipulates the molecular components of cells and organisms (almost four decades after Bateson, in 1905, had defined genetics, the science of hereditariness and variation). These molecular components include proteins, RNA and DNA. The (double helix) structure of the molecules of the latter was discovered in 1953 by the biologist James Watson, from the USA, and by the physicists Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, from Britain, and Rosalind Franklin, also from the USA. The Nobel Prize was awarded in 1962 to the first three of them, as Rosalind Franklin had died in 1958. 


Bioinformatics is the term for the study of the application of computer and mathematics techniques to the creation and management of biological information. Although this is frequently associated to molecular biology, or more specifically to genomics, it involves biological information in general. It combines knowledge of chemistry, of physics, of biology, of computer sciences, of information technology and of statistical mathematics in order to process biological or biomedical data. It implies the use of special software that allow one to identify genes, foresee the three-dimensional configuration of proteins, identify enzyme inhibitors, organize and relate biological information, simulate cells, group together homologous proteins, set up phytogenic trees, compare multiple microbe communities in order to build genomic libraries and analyse experiments with a genetic expression, among many other applications. 


In 1972, Walter Fiers and his team at the Molecular Biology Laboratory of the University of Ghent, in Belgium, were the first to determine the sequence of a gene: that of bacteriophage coat protein. In 1990 the Human Genome program starts, financed by the United States Department of Energy and by the United States National Health Institutes, involving the international scientific community and with a foreseeable time period of fifteen years. 

The first living organism to be sequenced was the Haemophilus influenza in 1995, and since then the sequencing have not stopped. In September 2007 the complete sequences for 1,879 viruses, 577 bacteria and about 23 eukaryote organisms were known, half of which are fungi. A first outline of the human genome was presented by the Human Genome Project in early 2001, causing great expectation. In 2007 the sequencing of the human genome was completed. The presentation of the results needed important bioinformatic resources. The assembly of the human sequence of reference may be explored using the UCSC Genome Browser. 

Molecular Medicine and System Biology 

Molecular Medicine is a vast interdisciplinary field in which physical, chemical and biological techniques, among others, are used in order to describe molecular structures and their mechanisms, to identify errors in molecular genetics of illnesses and correct them molecularly. Its bases were set up in 1949 with the publication of the article “Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease” in the magazine Science, by Linus Pauling, Harvey Itano and their collaborators. 

Yet molecular medicine as a subject would only take place in 1966, when Mihajlo Mesarovic presents the article entitled “Theory of Systems and Biology” at an international symposium at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio.

During the sixties and seventies several strategies were developed with the aim of studying complex molecular studies, such as “metabolic control analysis” and “biochemical systems theory”. But it was with the explosive increase in computer capacity and speed in the nineteen nineties that the processing of large quantities of high quality data became possible, allowing the construction of complex models that were close to reality. In 1997, Masaru Tomita’s group published the first quantitative model of the (hypothetical) set of a cell. 

The Gulbenkian Science Institute was created in 1961 in Portugal, with its main aim being to carry out biomedical research and activities related to teaching. In 1989 the Molecular Pathology and Immunology Institute (IPATIMUP) was created in the University of Oporto, and, in the nineties, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oporto (recently brought together in a single institution, the I3S), and the Bial group. In 1990, the University of Coimbra Neurosciences and Cell Biology Centre is created. 

Around 2000, after the Biology and Systems institutes were set up in Seattle and Tokyo, systems biology emerged as an autonomous movement, stimulated by the development of Genomics and experiments in Bioinformatics. Since then, several research institutes in the field of systems biology have been created. Since the summer of 2006, due to the scarcity of researchers in systems biology, several training centres have been set up throughout the world. 

In Portugal, the Institute of Molecular Medicine (IMM) was created in the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon in 2001. The IMM and the Institute of Histology and Development Biology at the same faculty derive from the Institute of Histology and Embryology of the Lisbon Faculty of Medicine (founded in 1911 by Augusto Celestino da Costa), and from the Molecular Biology and Pathology Centre in the same faculty, created in the nineties. 

In 2009 the University of Coimbra Institute of Nuclear Sciences Applied to Health and the University of Minho International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory were inaugurated. 

The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded in 2009 to three scientists of different origins working in the USA EUA: Carol Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak. The prize was for the result of their research into an enzyme that protects cells against ageing, and has implications for research into cancer, called telomerase, determining which way the chromosomes can be entirely copied and protected against degrading, in this way advancing knowledge about cell ageing, the “solution to a great problem for biology”, according to the Nobel Committee. 

Bioethics and Universal Declaration on the Human Genome

In 1971 the American biologist Van Rensselar Potter (1911-2001) publishes the book Bioethics: Bridge to The Future, in which the concept of bioethics appears for the first time, mixing scientific and humanistic knowledge. In the same year the Kennedy Institute of Ethics is founded in Georgetown University, in the USA, the first academic centre for bioethics in the world, through a donation from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. 

In 1988 the Centre for Bioethical Studies was founded in Coimbra, the first bioethics centre in Portugal, being an initiative of a reflection group made up of doctors, lawyers, theologians and philosophers from the Portuguese Association of Catholic Doctors. Two years later there is the creation of the National Council of Ethics for Life Sciences, an independent, transdisciplinary constitutive organ. The need for this organ emerged during the works of the Commission for the Legislative Framing of the New Technologies, set up by the Minister of Justice in order to prepare a law project about medically assisted reproduction. The complexity and the novelty of the ethical problems raised during the preparation of this document led to the Commission presenting the Portuguese parliament with a law project for a national council. Portugal thus becomes one of the first countries in Europe to show the need to create a national bioethics committee. 

In 1997, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights is adopted at the UNESCO General Conference, based on a project drawn up by the International Bioethics Committee. This declaration possesses innovating and peculiar aspects in relation to other universal declarations of Right, as it is not based only on the abstract philosophical notion of equality among men (founded on the presence of human reason and autonomy), but also on the biological identity drawn out starting from the genome. In 2003 the UNESCO General Conference adopted the Declaration on Human Genetic Data, and, in 2005, the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.


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