The great gene race

A tiny private company and the giant public genome project jointly crossed the finish line. But the upstart really won.

Published June 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The genome fanfare Monday -- the White House announcement, the TV hookup from London, the press briefing afterward -- had only one purpose: to provide a picture of two rival scientists sprinting simultaneously and triumphantly across the finish line after more than a year of bitter exchanges in the press.

But it was clear that the moment belonged to one of those scientists: J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Corporation, the Maryland company that completed its genome project in just nine months. And it was clear too, that the groundbreaking life sciences, including control over the code of human genetic destiny, has decisively shifted from the realm of academia and government to the private sector. It will take weeks, even years, for experts to sort out what this shift means for medical research, the open sharing of information and the protection of patients whose genetic makeup will soon be an open book.

Maybe the hoopla Monday did erase some acrimony between Francis Collins, leader of the publicly funded Human Genome Project, and Venter. When everyone is talking breathlessly about curing cancer, or glimpsing the "book of life," who wants to think about a nasty feud? Why spoil the party by recalling that just weeks ago, Venter called Collins' behavior "despicable," or that Collins once said Venter was capable of producing nothing but a "Mad magazine" version of the genome.

On Monday, Collins made a poetic plea to forget the horse race: "The only race we're talking about today is the human race."

But Venter didn't miss a chance to proclaim the achievement a "historic moment for private industry and private capital." And he did not hesitate to remind everyone that, without his company's efforts, the announcement ("this happy day for humankind," as Francis Collins put it) might not have occurred for a few more years.

Asked last week what the role of the public sector should now be, Celera communications director Heather Kowalski spoke of the need to address the "orphan diseases" -- rare illnesses that draw little attention from, or offer little profit to, private investors. A former counsel to the Biotechnology Industry Organization has a blunter assessment: the academics and the National Institutes of Health are going to have to meet the demands of the marketplace or find a new line of work.

Noted scientists already have leaped to the defense. Consider the op-ed piece by Nobel laureate David Baltimore, in Sunday's New York Times. With all his hallowed praise for this moment of molecular magic, he made only one basic point: a plea to continue funding basic research at universities and public labs like the National Institutes of Health. The plea is necessary only because it has become a real question.

Even after Venter first announced that his tiny company would accomplish by 2000 what the international consortium was trying to achieve by 2003 or 2005 -- and would do it at one-tenth of the cost of the public effort's $3 billion budget -- some scientists with the public project resisted modifying their sequencing strategy and schedule. Finally, at a pivotal meeting in December 1998, Human Genome Project scientists agreed that they had to compete with Celera or face humiliation. "Ramp Up or Die" became the motto at some sequencing labs.

Just two months ago, clearly at the behest of Collins and his British counterparts at the Sanger/Wellcome sequencing center in London, President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair launched a broadside blast at Venter, declaring that the human genome should not be patentable. The worldwide reaction was a drop in biotech stocks, especially Celera's, by some $30 billion in two days. But in typical New Democrat fashion, it turned out that Clinton and Blair didn't really mean it, as both the White House and the U.S. Patent and Trade Office quickly tried to clarify in press releases. There was no change in patent policy, and the genetic gold rush was still on.

Collins, Clinton and Blair often refer to the pressing ethical and legal and social issues raised by the new era of genomics. Venter talks about these too. But in the rush to the finish line, ethical considerations have gone by the wayside. "The genome project has been a technological success," says geneticist Paul Billings, a member of the Council for Responsible Genetics. "But when it comes to the protections for the public that were to be put in place, the genome project is a failure."

What's wrong? The director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Arthur Caplan, offers a list: "There's still no guarantee that people can get genetic testing paid for if they want it in terms of insurance. There's still no national legislation protecting against genetic discrimination. There's still no guarantee that genetic testing will be affordable. There's still no guarantee that we won't test people without their consent, including children and embryos. There's no privacy statute.

"Want me to go on? There's nothing to prohibit testing of the dead. There's nothing to protect stored genetic information from being looked at by third parties. There's no guarantee that counseling will always accompany testing. There's not enough personnel to do it. There's no training in law and in ethics for people in medical and in nursing schools who will be asked to interpret genetic information. There are no standards for advertising and marketing so that there's no preying on others and companies don't exploit fear and even create panic. Other than that, we're all set."

The biotechnology industry fears laws and regulations that would impede their ability to raise capital or develop markets for genetic tests and therapies. Whatever their commitment to public protection, scientists also express fears that regulations that would limit their ability to manipulate life forms, from the cell to whole cloned organisms. There are limits on researchers who use government funds, but few constraints on researchers in the private sector. So far, the American public seems willing to wait until there are casualties from the genetic revolution before demanding that the government put limits and protections on genetic testing.

In a packed hotel ballroom Monday, key scientists from the public and private venture took the stage to speak to the press. The public scientists gathered on one side, the Celera group on the other. During his introductions, Venter did not restrain himself from referring to the differences in salaries earned by the two groups, by the realities of stock options for one and not the other. As if competing, Collins asked a member of his team to name the number of hits that the Web site of public DNA sequence database receives each day from researchers around the globe. Five hundred thousand hits a day, the press was told.

So it's come to this: number of hits versus stock options. Nobody doubts which side holds the advantage in that race.

By Ralph Brave

Ralph Brave is a science writer who lives in Davis, California.

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