DNA: Scientists Race to Unravel the Human Genome
After more than a decade of research by hundreds of scientists worldwide, two camps -- the government-funded Human Genome Project and Maryland- based Celera Genomics, a private company -- are within weeks of cracking the human genetic code, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. For over a decade, humanity has struggled to crack its own genetic code, but one man, Venter, the maverick leader of Celera Genomics, has led the charge, according to the Chronicle. His efforts and innovations forced publicly-funded labs to finish the genome project well ahead of their original 2005 target date. "Celera's entry certainly stirred the pot," Francis Collins, overseer of the public effort and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., said, but "one shouldn't portray this as a bunch of slow-moving government funded scientists waiting around for a jolt."
Venter determined early in his research that new scientific tools could automate and accelerate the search for genes, and by the early 1990s he found as many genes and gene fragments as all other scientists combined. In addition, he developed a process of "shotgun sequencing" which allowed researchers to assemble DNA codes far more quickly than mapping each gene individually. In 1995, he formed the Celera company, joining forces with Mike Hunkapiller, president of PE Biosystems. "I wouldn't have thought two years ago I could get $300 million (used to start Celera) to do an experiment ... fortunately, the experiment succeeded," Venter concluded in a recent interview.
The Patent War
With the race to discover human genes in high gear, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has received a flood of applications, including 10,000 from Celera Genomics, the Chronicle reports. Biotech officials claim that patents provide financial incentives for companies to develop new treatments for a variety of ailments. While in the past, genes were difficult to find, new technology has allowed gene hunters to find genes automatically, leading to the deluge of new applications, but often researchers have no idea of their functions. Although scientists can deduce "theoretical functions" of these genes through computer analysis, Collins argues that this does not meet the requirements for patent approval. "These are hypotheses," he said, noting that "They could be right or they could be wrong." For now, the process remains murky with thousands of patent applications still pending. Patent Commissioner Todd Dickinson, however, believes that his office will "strike the right balance on a case-by-case basis."
What happens after the code is cracked? Some opponents have expressed concerns over genetic privacy, while others worry that the availability of tests for human ailments will "raise the societal anxiety level." UC Berkeley scientist Troy Duster, a former consultant with the genome program, said his greatest fear is the "emergence of genetic determinism." "We're going to create this tone of inevitability, where we think of a person's position in their job or society as some outgrowth of their genes," he said, adding that these ideas might lead to genetic engineering among humans (Abate, 4/25).