World awaits answer to $400m gene question

June 23, 2000

Researchers around the world are set to announce on Monday the completion of 90 per cent of one of the most exciting projects in the history of science: the sequencing of the human genome.

Costing about $400 million, the Human Genome Project has been carried out in Europe, Asia and the United States. It will have identified and located about 60,000 genes, more than 99 per cent of which all human beings have in common.

Sweeping claims are already being made for the developments that this vast amount of data will make possible.

Individual susceptibilities to disease may become apparent from instant gene tests: future gene therapy methods could allow disease genes to be attacked; and a wealth of information on human development, normal and abnormal, will be placed on a sound scientific footing.

But questions remain about the commercial environment in which the genome knowledge will be used.

While the international public-sector project has not patented any of its work, the US firm Celera has run a parallel private-sector project that has patents on many gene functions.

The public-sector sequences can also be used as the basis for patent applications when gene functions are defined.

Despite this clash of cultures, Celera and the project seem to have reached an understanding that may lead to a joint announcement on the near-completion of the human genome.

However, all those concerned stress that the genome is simply raw data.

A huge structure of biological and medical research, therapy and drug development will be built on it but the full ramifications will only become apparent over decades.

These developments will be driven by sequencing the genomes of other species, including key organisms used in laboratory science.

Next week The THES will analyse the genome announcement.

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