U.S. aims to finish gene blueprint two years earlier than scheduled Some researchers hope 2003 deadline will thwart patents by private firms

September 15, 1998|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA -- Leaders of the federal Human Genome Project pledged yesterday to produce a complete blueprint of human DNA by 2003, two years earlier than scheduled. And, after criticizing a rival plan to produce a less-than-perfect blueprint a few months ago, they said they would create a "rough draft" by the year 2001.

"What we are talking about is a big and ambitious and even audacious plan," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project. "It will, I believe, ignite the imagination of the scientific community."

The major shift in direction, approved yesterday by the project's national advisory council, comes after two biotech firms launched their own bids to transcribe, or sequence, the 3 billion chemical units that constitute the human genetic code.

Collins said these private efforts prodded federally financed researchers to see if they could work faster, and discovered they could.

Genes being patented

But some federal researchers said they hope the accelerated schedule will thwart the efforts of biotech firms to lay claim to more of the human body's 80,000 or so genes -- the set of instructions for building and operating the human body. Hundreds of these genes have already been patented.

"If we can get this public data out there, it will make it more difficult for them to patent the genes that haven't been identified," said Dr. LeRoy E. Hood of the University of Washington, a pioneer of sequencing technology and a member of the advisory group.

The stakes are high: A complete sequence of the human genome could revolutionize medicine by, for example, baring the genetic roots of such common killers as cancer and heart disease.

DNA is a twisting string of four chemical units, called nucleotide bases, abbreviated A, T, C and G. The genetic code is written in these four letters, and is based on their order or sequence.

So far, only about 6 percent of the 3 billion nucleotide bases in human DNA have been sequenced.

Collins warned that the stepped-up effort "will be a stretch," since federal researchers must sequence genetic data two or three times faster than they do now. And it will require an infusion of cash from Congress, although he isn't sure what the price tag would be.

When it was launched by the National Institutes of Health and federal Department of Energy in 1990, the Human Genome Project was supposed to cost $3 billion spread over 15 years.

With the biotech firms hot on the genome project's heels, Collins projected a slide at a meeting on the NIH campus yesterday that summed up the project's new philosophy: "It's the Sequence, Stupid."

2001 deadline

In May, J. Craig Venter of the nonprofit Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville and the Perkin-Elmer Corp. of Norwalk, Conn., announced they were forming a new company, called Celera Genomics Corp, to create a blueprint of human DNA by 2001.

Venter estimated the effort would cost just $300 million, none of it paid by taxpayers. And he pledged to publish most of the data once every three months, with no restrictions on research -- leading some to question the future of the federal project. (Venter also said he would try to patent up to 300 genes.)

Critics, including Collins, said Venter's effort, which will use a technique pioneered by Nobel laureate Dr. Hamilton O. Smith, was likely to be riddled with errors and gaps. Hood said yesterday he feared that Celera may renege on its pledge to publish its data due to competitive pressures.

Venter yesterday welcomed the announcements, particularly the decision to make a rough draft. This material, he said, could act as a guide to Celera's own efforts to draft a more complete chart of human DNA.

"It's a very tremendous about face to where they were a few months ago," he added. "They're doing something of far lower quality than what they were accusing me of trying to do."

Patents defended

But Venter denied that he would back off from his pledge to make most of Celera's genetic data public. And he took issue with the criticism of private gene patents.

"That implies that patenting is against the public good, even though it's the only way that the American public is going to get any good out of this information," he said.

Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, Calif. jumped into the race this summer, announcing plans to create its own genetic blueprint. The firm has no plans to make any of its information public.

Randy Scott, head of Incyte, welcomed the federal announcement.

"It may ultimately reduce the amount of sequencing that we have to do," he said.

Collins does not like to call the competition a race, pointing out that federal researchers are aiding Celera in a warm-up for its genome effort -- a push to sequence the genome of the fruit fly.

"This is action, not reaction," he said.

Still, he conceded, Celera and Incyte have "really perhaps opened people's eyes to the possibility" of speeding up the project.

Several advisory council members sounded enthusiastic about the accelerated schedule.

Extraordinary plan

"Things really are ramping up," said Barbara J. Wold, a biologist with the California Institute of Technology. "It really looks like this is feasible. This is an extraordinary plan that's going to change our lives."

Dr. Bert Vogelstein of the Johns Hopkins University, not a member of the council, is a prominent cancer researcher who hunts for the genes that are the underlying cause of the disease.

"It's very good news," he said. "The sooner the information is available to the public, the sooner that it can be used to help find genes."

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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