HUMAN GENOME: Federal Institute Raises Bar Again
Government-funded gene researchers will have a "working draft" of 90% of the human genome by spring 2000, a full 18 months ahead of schedule, positioning the government to leapfrog its private sector competitors, the Financial Times reports. The draft blueprint will provide scaffolding for scientists to unravel the entire human genome by 2003 and surpass the ambitious efforts of two U.S. companies: Palo Alto, CA-based Incyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which has announced it will sequence all "commercially relevant" spans by next year; and Rockville, MD-based Celera Genomics Corp., which "expects to complete the human genome by the end of 2001" (Cookson, 3/16). Hoping to accelerate the already "breakneck pace" of gene sequencing, the National Human Genome Research Institute announced $81.6 million in grants -- "its largest awards ever" -- to three research institutions spearheading the government's efforts: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Meanwhile, the UK-based research charity Wellcome Trust announced it will boost funding for a gene center in Britain that is working closely with American scientists.
The Washington Post reports that the Internet database that serves as a clearinghouse for the deciphered genetic code already houses 10% of the human gene sequence in final form and an additional 5% in draft form (Gillis, 3/16). In the race for results, scientists at MIT "came up with a process that can be used to sequence the rest efficiently and accurately," said Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research (Lasalandra, Boston Herald, 3/16). Whittled down from the eight university-based systems that have received government funding, the government decision to channel funds to "the three most productive centers" may give the decentralized National Human Genome Research Institute "a helpful edge in competing with the monolithic but nimble Celera" (Wade, New York Times, 3/16). Already, costs have dropped from $2 per base, or chemical code unit, to $0.20 per base, Lander said (Saltus, Boston Globe, 3/16).
Public vs. Private: Friendly Competition?
"This will have a direct and dramatic acceleration" in the search for new drugs, said Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He noted, however, that the action was not spurred by last year's announcement that Celera Genomics, the government's primary corporate rival, would complete its sequencing effort in 2001 four years earlier than expected. Collins said the Celera announcement merely "stirred the pot" and that the government acceleration stems from "better gene- sequencing technology under testing for the last three years." Adding that "the two efforts complement each other," Collins said that gene data collected from both groups could be combined to speed up the completion of the final sequence (Langreth, Wall Street Journal, 3/16).