HUMAN GENOME: Colorful Geneticist In Race To Map DNA
The flamboyant scientist J. Craig Venter was profiled in the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post over the weekend. Venter, head of Rockville, MD-based Celera Genomics Corp., has announced plans to map the human genome four years faster and billions of dollars more cheaply than the federal government's Human Genome Project. The Human Genome Project is slated to finish in 2005 with a projected cost of $3 billion; Venter says he can achieve the same result with $300 million and be done by 2001. In a piece titled, "Splice Einstein and Sammy Glick. Add a Little Magellan," the New York Times Magazine reports that despite charges from the scientific community that by using a shortcut, Venter's plan "would result in a genome filled with errors and gaps," he pronounced, "Quick does not mean dirty." Other critics question his motives, asking whether "he might somehow come to own the operating system for the human body." Lori Andrews of the Chicago-Kent College of Law asked, "[D]oes he want to be the Bill Gates of the human genome?"(Belkin, 8/23).
Who Controls The Information?
The Washington Post reported that the key to the controversy surrounding Venter's efforts -- and those of Palo Alto, CA-based Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc., the other private entrant in the race to map the human genome (see AHL 8/18) -- is "how quickly, and under whose control, scientists will develop a complete, accurate picture of the instructions that describe the growth and functioning of the human body." The Human Genome Project releases all information daily. Celera has announced that it will share its discoveries, but will charge a fee for access to its DNA database. Incyte will keep all data private, selling genomic sequences to pharmaceutical companies hoping to tailor drugs to patients' specific genetic makeup (Gillis, 8/22).
Easy With The Patents
An accompanying Post editorial argues that "[a]s the field grows crowded ... and as hopes for a lucrative pharmaceutical payoff rise, the implications of such vital research moving into the private sector -- wholly or partly -- need sharpened attention." Specifically at issue is the patent office's policy of making it relatively easy to patent a specific gene sequence, possibly restricting access to other scientists attempting to obtain a complete knowledge of the genome. The Post concludes, "[I]f ever a class of scientific information seemed fundamental to human knowledge and worthy of general access, the basic architecture of our genes is it. Granters of patents should tread with great care to keep these building blocks of future progress accessible to as much inquiry as possible."
Congress And Funding
The St. Louis Times-Dispatch reports that private efforts to map the human genome -- including those of St. Louis-based Genome Systems, an Incyte subsidiary -- "raise questions about the future of the Human Genome Project" which "were so prominent that Congress held a hearing in June to talk about the future of the government program." Dr. Robert Waterston, head of St. Louis' Washington University gene sequencing center, said that while "scientists understand that the flow of money could be in jeopardy one day ... he's confidant that Congress will recognize the value of a public effort devoted to precision." He added, "These [private] partial products will not be what we need to interpret the book of life" (Lambrecht, 8/24). Related Websites: