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In the elegant quiet of the café at the Church of Sweden, a narrow Gothic-style building in Midtown Manhattan, Daniel Cohen is taking a break from explaining genetics. He moves toward the creaky piano positioned near the front door, sits down, and plays a flowing, flawless rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
If human biology is the scientific equivalent of a complicated score, Cohen has learned how to navigate it like a virtuoso. Cohen was the driving force behind Généthon, the French laboratory that in December 1993 produced the first-ever “map” of the human genome. He essentially introduced Big Data and automation to the study of genomics, as he and his team demonstrated for the first time that it was possible to use super-fast computing to speed up the processing of DNA samples.
Scientists worldwide have built on Cohen’s insights, and Cohen himself, an MD with a Ph.D. in immunology, has gone on to success as a researcher and pharma executive. But a quarter-century later, genomics has yielded few of the kinds of paradigm-changing medical breakthroughs that many of its early innovators hoped for. Today, as chief executive and founder of Paris-based drug startup Pharnext, Cohen is striving to understand why that rainbow hasn’t led to a pot of gold.
“Any protein in the body has many different functions, not only one,” he says, returning from the piano to talk with me, “just as you are a person who has many functions in the population, not just one.” The phenomenon Cohen is describing is “pleiotropy,” the capacity of a single gene to have multiple, seemingly unrelated effects. It is one of the complexities of disease that has repeatedly frustrated medical researchers in their quest for therapies for the most stubborn illnesses.