Kari Stefansson, M.D.
Swords and hallucinogenic roots
The stroke gene
Volcanoes under the midnight sun
The soul as machine
Black designer T-shirts
The oldest woman in the world
I. THE VIKING IN NEW YORK
In the Icelandic Sagas, the Viking explorer Ingolf Arnarson departed Norway c. 874, looking for plunder and territory. With the genetic fortitude of an ox crossed with a great white shark, Arnarson and his Vikings sailed out in long boats, carrying swords, a few goats, and a hallucinogenic root they chewed that made them go berserk in battle. First, they grabbed women in Scotland and Ireland before heading northwest toward a mysterious island found a few years earlier by Viking marauders far off in the murk, where legend said monsters and mermaids lurked deep in the frigid sea beyond the edge of the Earth.
I first met Kari Stefansson in New York City in December, 2001, at the New York Academy of Sciences headquarters at Sixty-third and Fifth Avenue. Lean and six feet four inches with a pointed, white beard, the fifty-four-year-old Stefansson is a direct descendant of Arnarson (and of Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson). Lately, he had been embarking on his own saga, this time into the murky unknown of nucleotides and entrepreneurism. Trained as a physician in Iceland, he was medium famous in genetics circles at Harvard University as a neurologist delving into the mechanics of multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders. Before scientists could easily study DNA, he cut open the brains of people who had died from MS and other maladies of the mind. After several years of slow progress, however, Stefansson found the academic approach maddeningly slow and too small-scale.
In 1996, Stefansson returned to Iceland to found deCode Genetics. Raising $12 million—and later hundreds of millions more—he became an instant rock star in Reykjavík, the second most famous Icelander after Björk. In Reykjavík, he built a fantastic genetic palace of blond wood and glass for his company, one of the largest structures in Iceland. Stefansson’s idea was to peruse the genetics of Iceland’s entire population of 290,000 people, looking for patterns in genes that cause schizophrenia, asthma, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, and dozens of other maladies. Thanks to meticulous genealogical records kept for 1,000 years in Iceland and written in the Islendingabok, the “Book of Icelanders,” Stefansson could tap into the records of 680,000 people who had lived on the island since Arnarson, using computers to pick out how families inherited disease. More controversially, he convinced the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, to release Icelanders’ individual medical records to him—with consent, and as long as the details were kept private.
Now, in New York five years later, Stefansson was explaining to investors and journalists the details of a $300 million deal with F. Hoffmann-La Roche, in which deCode agreed to provide the pharmaceutical kingpin with genetic tests for several diseases. He also announced the discovery of genetic markers for rheumatoid arthritis. Usually, Stefansson wears tight, black, designer T-shirts to show off his remarkably fit physique and well-pumped biceps, maintained each day in a Reykjavík gym or in hotel gyms on the road. For the announcement, he wore a chic dark suit that made him look like an Armani Thor amidst the less inspired pinstripes of the drug lords. But what really struck me was Stefansson’s eyes: dark green, fiery, penetrating, the eyes of a man who in another era might have killed you at the least provocation. He could barely sit still during the proceedings, even if this deal marked a great personal triumph. Afterward, I had a quick exchange with him:
DAVID EWING DUNCAN: You had this prestigious position at Harvard studying brains. Why give that up and return to Iceland?
KARI STEFANSSON: Things weren’t happening fast enough. I was in academia for twenty-five years, and I was a little bit bored. Biotech was beginning to take off, to give us the tools we need to study large numbers of genes at once, instead of one at a time. I needed a population to identify genetic disease traits, and Iceland works well, because we have been isolated and have similar genes, but it’s still big enough to have a diversity of diseases. So Icelanders are reasonably good lab animals for the kind of testing we do. Later, we will test this information on Americans and others to see if it is relevant to them.
DD: Why is this important?
KS: One day, you will walk into a doctor’s office and they will test you, and they can tell you if you will get a disease, even if you’re healthy, and they can know how to treat you in the future.
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