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Genome Race Reaching the Finish Line

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June 26, 2000 (Washington) -- In a day filled with hyperbole and hope, a working draft of most of our genes was announced by President Clinton in a White House ceremony. Often called a map of the human genome, the document contains more than three billion bits of information that determine every detail of a person's makeup.

"Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind," said the president. He compared the achievement to the explorations of Lewis and Clark.

While federally sponsored researchers have cobbled together fragments of 97% of the genome, only 85% has actually been sequenced, or put in its exact order. Still, the president celebrated the complexity of the accomplishment, saying, "We are learning the language in which God created life."

It was also a time to heal the wounds that had surfaced during recent months between Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who heads the federal National Human Genome Research Institute, and J. Craig Venter, PhD, president and chief scientific officer of Celera Genomics. The two scientists had become the focal point of a heated, sometimes bitter race to complete the task of genome analysis. A series of secret meetings in May over beer and pizza apparently led to the reconciliation.

And on this occasion, harmony superseded competition. "I'm happy that, today, the only race we are talking about is the human race," said Collins during his remarks. Venter congratulated Collins for his efforts and then noted that as a consequence of genome research, "There's at least the potential to reduce the number of cancer deaths to zero during our lifetimes."

The scope of the effort -- which included scientists from Japan, Germany, France, China as well as Great Britain -- was underscored by comments by English Prime Minister Tony Blair via satellite. "What we are witnessing today [is] a revolution in medical science whose implications far surpass even the discovery of antibiotics," said Blair.

However, Clinton said there is a potential downside, namely discrimination. He wants pending legislation that would guarantee "that genetic information cannot be used to stigmatize or discriminate."

The genome initiative was launched in 1990 with a 15-year timetable and a $3 billion budget. The goal was to find the genes responsible for some 5,000 inherited disorders, giving researchers a wealth of new targets from which to design highly specific treatments. Ultimately, $300 million did the job. However, since the middle of 1998, when Venter's company jumped into the fray, the pace of discovery has increased dramatically.

This competition between public and private scientists -- all working toward a common goal -- created what was described as a biotech version of the moon race. In May, Celera announced the sequencing of the fruit fly genome, which shares many biological features of the human being.

Sequencing the human genome was not far behind. While the goal was the same, the two groups went about their quest differently.

Celera's team had a core of about 50 scientists. The international effort employed about 1,000 researchers. However, at the finish line, the results were strikingly similar, and both groups have committed to sitting down and discussing their different approaches.

While there is now a map of human heredity, a number of sites remain uncharted. "There is much still to be done. ... We should not be satisfied with a book of life that has gaps and errors," said Collins. Even so, the gold rush is well underway. Venter says his company has already filed for some two dozen genetic patents, and Celera has established partnerships with drug company giants like Pfizer and Novartis.

Over the coming months, Celera and Genome Project officials say they'll come up with a scheme for publishing their data.

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