May 12, 2000 (Washington) -- The competition between publicly funded researchers and a private biotechnology firm to identify and sequence every human gene is heating up as the project nears completion, and some observers say it has begun to look more like a pro wrestling match than a noble quest to unravel life's secrets.
"What's going on is that we've added in ego with a pretty healthy dose of arrogance. I see that present on all sides of the ? race," Arthur Caplan, PhD, an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells WebMD.
The field consists of a consortium of academic research centers, underwritten by the National Institutes of Health and the British Wellcome Trust, and their feisty private-sector opponent, Celera Genomics of Rockville, Md.
What's at stake are, at the very least, bragging rights to what may be the most celebrated research project since the U.S. put a man on the moon. Over time, researchers hope the three billion bits of genetic information deciphered from the 23 pairs of human chromosomes -- microscopic bodies that are made up of genes -- will be translated into cures for thousands of inherited diseases.
At the helm of the NIH team is Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who has a reputation for high-quality genetic scholarship as well as the political savvy to run a multibillion-dollar research enterprise.
Celera's founder, J. Craig Venter, PhD, is also considered a talented scientist, but also as something of a maverick. He came up with a rapid-fire method of sequencing genes in the mid-'90s when he worked at the National Cancer Institute. He then took his novel approach, with its considerable profit potential, and moved over to the private sector.
Neither Collins nor Venter responded to numerous requests for an interview with WebMD.
Although the consortium and Celera are working toward the same end, they have different purposes. The academic scientists want their findings to be put in the public domain through the so-called GenBank, accessible over the Internet. Venter is hoping to turn his company's efforts into profitable drugs. Celera reportedly will make its human genome information available to the public, but not without guarantees that the data won't be snatched up by rival companies.
"Unfortunately for the academics, it's Venter who gets most of the advantage of that, because he can use the wealth of information in public databases for his ends," Roger Reeves, PhD, a genetics researcher at Johns Hopkins University, tells WebMD.
But Reeves gives credit to Venter for jump-starting the Human Genome Project: "He has certainly pushed technology development on the academic side, in what can really only be viewed as very positive ways."
Originally, the government-backed genome initiative wasn't scheduled for completion until 2005, but pressure from Celera has steadily moved the deadline up. The company has already used its powerful gene-analyzing technology to sequence the fruit fly genome -- a highly useful research tool.
This competition has also spawned some hard feelings, as lengthy efforts to reach a cooperative agreement between the two players have failed. Late last year, Collins showed his frustration in a letter to Venter, accusing him of "antagonism and excessive competition," according to a spokesman for Collins.
"This has long ago turned into a rather infantile toy-pull over who's going to get the prize," says Caplan, who has been a paid consultant to Celera but has advised many on the not-for-profit side as well. It's estimated that U.S. government is investing some $3 billion in the genome effort, while Celera is spending about $500 million.
The winner could be announced in a matter of weeks, as the two groups push to get their findings published in major scientific journals. It's been reported that the consortium's results will appear in Nature, and Celera's gene map will appear in Science. But the two groups may divide their offerings equally between the two prestigious publications.
Neither group is expected to have completed a seamless gene sequence -- a map showing where specific genes are located -- by then, although it's likely their maps will cover 90-95% of the human genome.
Some gene researchers view the entire process with indifference.
"For us, this race has virtually no meaning ? the so-called completion is not important. It's basically a sideshow to a story that's already been completed," William Haseltine, chairman and chief executive officer of Human Genome Sciences Inc., tells WebMD.
Haseltine's company already has patents on hundreds of all-important gene proteins that have the potential to become treatments. Haseltine, one of Venter's former business partners, calls the gene-sequencing effort a "techno-folly."
Still, the race goes on. Scientists from Japan and Germany who are part of the NIH consortium announced last week they had determined the structure of chromosome 21, which has been linked to Down's syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, and Lou Gehrig's disease.
This is the second human chromosome to be sequenced by consortium scientists. In December, researchers announced that they had fully explored chromosome 22. Chromosome 22 is believed to be involved in the workings of the immune system, childhood heart disease, schizophrenia, mental retardation, various birth defects, and cancers such as leukemia.
Reeves says chromosome 21 was surprising in that it contained only 225 genes. Based on what scientists found in chromosome 22, it now appears that humans have may only 40,000 genes instead of the 70,000 to 100,000 originally estimated by researchers.