New institute to boost gene research in Md.

July 08, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

Maryland will become home to a new biotechnology company and one of the largest genetic research institutes this year, helping to make the state a center for the science of identifying and mapping genes.

Dr. J. Craig Venter, a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda,has said he will leave the federal government in the next two weeks to start a private, not-for-profit institute where he will continue his work in gene sequencing -- the process of determining the chemical structure of the chromosomes in the human body.

The $70 million promised over the next 10 years by Human Genome Sciences, a biotechnology company formed by a large venture capital company, HealthCare Investment Corp., will enable him to accelerate his research.

Currently, he is identifying 1,000 gene sequences and fragments a month and hopes to increase that to 2,000 a week with the additional funding.

Scientists worldwide are trying to identify and map the genome -- the estimated 100,000 genes that determine characteristics from eye color to inherited talents.

The Johns Hopkins University houses the central data base for an international genome project, and the NIH has funded much of the basic research. The knowledge could be used to develop treatments for genetic diseases and other illnesses from cancer to asthma.

"This helps put Maryland even further on the map as being one of the major centers on genome," Dr. Venter said.

The new biotechnology company, Human Genome Sciences Inc., will be founded this year to develop health-care products from the basic research of the institute, HealthCare Investment said.

HealthCare Investment will channel the money through Human Genome Sciences, which will provide much of the funding for Dr. Venter's institute. In return, the company will have the exclusive rights to any of the institute's research.

Although it has no headquarters, officers, employees or products in sight, the company will probably find a home in Gaithersburg ** near Genetic Therapy Inc., MedImmune Inc. and Molecular Oncology Inc., three of the state's larger biotechnology companies, which form a small family of companies that got their start with seed money from HealthCare Investment Corp.

Within two years, the company will be largely a research and development organization with 100 employees, predicted Wallace H. Steinberg, chairman of HealthCare Investment.

"I think this is good for Maryland," he said. "We have plans for three more companies in Maryland." He would provide no details but said some companies will be in Gaithersburg and elsewhere in the state.

In establishing the institute, Dr. Venter said, he is taking 30 of his NIH colleagues with him and will recruit as many as 70 other people, including laboratory technicians and Ph.D.s to "get tags on the majority of human genes" in the next three to five years.

Dr. Venter's work as a senior scientist at the NIH caused a furor within the research community this year when the federal government attempted to patent gene fragments that the scientist had identified using a technique he developed.

The custom had been to patent individual genes once their function and possible therapeutic uses were identified. But scientists worried that an attempt by the U.S. government to patent partial genes would end in a patent race among companies and nations that would reduce the free exchange of scientific information.

Dr. Venter and HealthCare Investment Corp. were careful to say yesterday that the institute's researchers will publish all their findings quickly, which will make them available to other scientists.

The institute will work closely with the NIH, but Dr. Venter said his tendency is to wait until the function of the gene fragments is understood before applying for patents.

The institute's research should complement the intensive research that is being conducted worldwide, said Victor A. McKusick, a Johns Hopkins geneticist who is one of the leaders in the international effort to map the genome.

"I think it will have a positive effect in terms of increasing the rate at which we move toward the goal of completing the human genome project," Dr. McKusick said.

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