It could provide a road map to all of human genetics, cures for any number of diseases and fodder for generations of dissertation topic-seeking graduate students of biology. It could also provide a bonanza for Life Technologies Inc.
"It" is the Human Genome Project, a multiyear, multibillion-dollar federally backed research project to identify the location of every chromosome, gene and base pair of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) -- all three billion base pairs, in fact -- that make up the human cell. Ultimately, the project hopes to set the stage for revolutions in treating genetically based disease.
Life Tech recently signed a three-year contract with Los Alamos National Laboratory that the company hopes will make it a central player both in the Genome Project and in much of the years of research that flow from it. The contract also can be renewed for up to two more years.
Scientists from the Gaithersburg firm and the New Mexico federal lab will try to develop both enzymes and other biological products to break down and fuse strands of DNA, as well as instruments that can help scientists identify the genetic components and record the order in which they are found on individual genes.
"This is really a revolution," said John D. Harding, Life Tech's project director for the Human Genome Project. "We aren't sure it's going to work, but it's really promising."
It gets even more promising for Life Tech because it has the exclusive rights to license any technology or any products that come out of the research. And J. Stark Thompson, the company president, said Life Tech didn't have to pay any money upfront to get such a deal.
The instruments that Life Tech and Los Alamos hope to invent over the next three to five years could sequence as much DNA in 10 seconds as the best machines now available can handle in a day, Dr. Harding said. Sequencing DNA is the scientific term for figuring out the order in which different base pairs of DNA are arrayed on a gene.
"It's the order of the building blocks in the DNA that determine what the gene does," Dr. Harding said. For example, scientists think that the genetic damage that causes muscular dystrophy is caused by the fact that the base pairs on a single gene are in the wrong sequence, he said. Other diseases work much the same way, he said.
Dr. Harding said that Life Tech "certainly expects" to see useful enzymes and research chemicals discovered during the research, but the most commercially important discovery will be the improved instruments for DNA sequencing -- if the researchers can perfect them, which isn't a cinch.
"If the instrument piece falls into place, we're talking millions of dollars -- I don't even know how many," he said.
"If you're going from sequencing 10,000 base pairs a day to 1,000 base pairs a second, you can see the tremendous impact it will have," especially for scientists who have 3 billion base pairs to sequence and then decipher, Dr. Harding said.
The Los Alamos contract is an attempt by Life Tech to hit a home run by developing a small handful of blockbuster instrumentation products, an uncharacteristic move for a company usually content to rely on a broad portfolio of products, few of which are major individual contributors to the company's sales.
Dr. Thompson cautioned that it will be some time before any profits from the deal begin to show up on the company's bottom line. But he admits that the cautious nature of the company's involvement, which didn't require a major up-front investment and demands the time of only a handful of Life Tech's scientists, doesn't require a major gamble either.
"There's no negative impact on 1991 earnings, and no positive impact either," he said. "In profit and loss terms, it's a non-event for 1991."