Hopkins gene project gets grant Goal is clearinghouse of genetic data

September 20, 1991|By Mary Knudson

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is receiving nearly $16 million in federal funds toward building a computerized data base that will reveal how human beings are made and how they function.

Somewhat like an international quilting bee, scientists around the world are identifying genes -- the chemical instructions to cells -- and pinpointing their location on chromosomes, then sending the information to the Hopkins computer library. When the quilt is finished, it will be a map of all human genes and additional genetic commands that turn the genes on and off.

With this map, scientists will be able to learn how to better treat and prevent diseases and genetic abnormalities, said Dr. Victor A. McKusick, professor of medical genetics at Hopkins and a pioneer in the field.

Known as the Human Genome Project (genome means complete set of genetic instructions), this scientific undertaking is expected to cost $3 billion and take 15 years to complete.

Dr. William C. Richardson, president of the Johns Hopkins University, yesterday called the project "one of the most potentially revolutionary endeavors in the history of science."

University and government officials announced awards of up to $15.9 million from the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health to support the Genome Data Base over the next three years.

Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of genetic material known as DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, put the need for the Genome Data Base in the simplest of terms: "The amount of data we will accumulate is too much to store in anyone's memory." Dr. Watson is director of the Human Genome Project.

He added that it is too much to keep up with simply through contacts with other scientists. "We are into a computer-driven age," he said.

Having the data base at Hopkins will give Marylanders with computers easy access to the data.

Peter Pearson, scientific director of the data base, said that all that is needed is a home computer with a modem, a simple communications program, a user identification number anyone can get from Hopkins, and a manual.

Users can, for example, find out where a certain disease-causing gene is located, then turn to other information describing what is known about that disease.

The Human Genome Project has a committee studying the ethical, legal and social implications of the system.

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