Celera rises $55 as gene map nears

Firm's chief claims map is 90% done, vows to finish it this summer

Wall Street reacts warmly

Rival U.S. project to have draft of its map this spring

January 11, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Shares in PE Corp.-Celera Genomics Group rocketed more than $50 yesterday after the Rockville company stunned Wall Street with the news that its map of genes was 90 percent complete.

In making the announcement, Celera's President J. Craig Venter, 52, vowed to complete the map by this summer.

"We are in an incredibly exciting phase. We have discovered thousands and thousands of new [human] genes," said the former National Institutes of Health researcher best known for developing a faster way to map genes.

While Wall Street was obviously wowed by the news, Venter has competition on his back.

The National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute, overseeing an effort to compile a publicly available database of a fully completed human genome by 2003, says it's on track to have a working draft of the gene map available by this spring.

Although the government program will make its raw data available to the public, Celera claims it's going to provide more detailed information about genes and their potential medical uses. The company already has filed for patent protection on certain genes it has discovered.

What the government's publicly available database will mean to Celera's effort to line up paying customers for its research remains to be seen, said experts.

Cathy Yarborough, an NIH spokeswoman, said the government effort has so far completed mapping 47.7 percent of the human genome. Venter has incorporated this database, held in a computer system called GenBank, into Celera's data bank. Using different technology and approaches, both mapping efforts "assemble" the chemical codes, or "base pairs," of DNA and then re-check the findings as many as five times before researchers can be assured of accuracy and begin making sense of the data.

Francis Collins, the human research institute's director, and other noncommercial gene researchers were unavailable for comment yesterday as most were in meetings preparing for an international Human Genome Project meeting tomorrow.

Using a vast network of gene-hunting robots and computers, Celera has moved speedily.

The company launched its human gene research project in earnest in September after proving that its mapping method works. It did that by compiling a genetic blueprint of the fruit fly, a scientific milestone because its genetic profile is strikingly similar to that of humans.

Among the new human genes discovered is a neurotransmitter that may play a role in migraine headaches, Venter said.

Genes regulate the signals between cells and carry the codes for triggering the production of proteins. They carry out several functions, including regulating blood pressure and the brain's level of serotonin, a mood-stimulating chemical.

Eric T. Schmidt, a biotechnology analyst at SG Cowen Securities Corp. in New York, said yesterday's announcement was "one of the biggest scientific milestones" that Celera would announce.

The news, said Schmidt, means the company is six months to a year ahead of its original timetable for completing a map of the 80,000 to 100,000 genes that comprise the human genome.

Shares in Celera closed at $242, up $55.0625 yesterday in heavy trading. In early trading, shares hit an all-time high of $258 before falling back.

The stock has shot up more than 1,500 percent since June, when it traded as low as $14.1875. The company was formed in 1998 when Venter joined forces with the big DNA sequencing equipment maker Perkin-Elmer Corp.

Venter had "no doubt" that the completed map will find customers willing to pay for access to Celera's gene data bank. But, he also reiterated an earlier pledge to make raw gene data available to scholarly researchers via a public data bank.

The company has four major paying customers: drug giants Amgen Inc., Pfizer Inc., Pharmacia & Upjohn, and Novartis AG.

Despite the news and the big run up in stock, analysts predict the company will lose money for several years. Earnings ratings service I.B.E.S. projects the company's losses -- $50 million last year -- will grow this year and next.

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