The Genome Is Mapped: Now What?

Published June 26th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

The rough draft of the human genome, due to be announced today, Monday, is a landmark step, but marks only the start of a long scientific journey. 

It will take years for practical applications of the new genome knowledge to emerge. Here is a glimpse of possible advances that could unfold in the next 25 years, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. 

- 2002-2003: The mapping of the entire human genome will be 100 percent complete. A law protecting US citizens from all forms of genetic discrimination could be passed. 

- 2002-2010: The first tests of genetic screening against the risk of cancer, diabetes and strokes will take place, along with the first clinical attempts to use gene therapy to treat hemophilia, heart disease and certain cancers. 

DNA microprocessors will be capable of determining the composition of each strand of DNA. 

- 2015: Medical treatments tailored to the genetic makeup of each individual will be available, and will treat many diseases, including cancer. 

- 2025: Doctors will be capable of correcting genetic flaws, consigning some congenital diseases such as sickle cell anemia to history books. 

- 2050: Many potential diseases will be cured at the molecular level before they arise, although large inequities worldwide in access to these advances will continue to stir tensions. 

The average life span will reach 90/95 years, and a detailed understanding of human aging genes will spur efforts to expand the maximum length of human life. 

- 2050: We will know much more about human populations. Relationships among groups of people will become clearer, revealing histories of intermingling as well as periods of separation and migration. 

Genome research could pay big dividends 

The rough mapping of the human genome raises the long-term economic stakes not just for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, but also for the public, analysts say. 

Already, medical treatments stemming from biotechnology account for about six or seven percent of market share in the pharmaceutical industry, up from around 0.5 percent in the late 1980s, according to Gillian Woollett, vice president for biology and biotechnologies at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). 

Biotechnology will thoroughly dominate the field within a decade, according to William Haseltine, head of Human Genome Sciences, a pioneer firm in the sector. 

"The public will begin to see these new drugs as early as three to four years from now, and in 10 years it will be the dominant form of medicine on the market," he said. 

"Genes will be able to be identified more quickly and therefore new diagnostics and new drugs will be able to be developed more quickly," agreed Charles Craig, spokesman for a trade association grouping US biotechnology companies. 

The number of biotechnology-based treatments under developement has risen from 81 in 1988 to 369 in 2000, according to PhRMA. And there are some 65 such treatments on the market, the association says. 

"It's certainly one of the focuses on the future in the company," according to a spokesman for the US pharmaceutical group American Home Products. 

"We are investing heavily in research and development about two billion dollars this year, of which a significant portion of that will be geared towards biotechnology," the spokesman said. 

Experts are split on what economic benefits patients undergoing such treatments will enjoy. 

"With this more targeted approach with selectivity, we can narrow the focus of the drug development process, and then you run through that process much more quickly (and) get less dead ends in the research process," according to Richard Bergstrom, head of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists. 

But for other officials, state-of-the-art techniques remain costly: "you've got more tools in your toolkits but the tools are expensive," said Woollett 

Genetic therapy will likely pay dividends elsewhere. 

"If you had a way to prevent Alzheimer's, rather than treating the victims, it would mean enormous savings to society," said Haseltine. 

Investors, not blind to the opportunities breakthroughs could represent, have sent biotech issues on an unprecedented roller coaster mirroring the hopes and doubts sparked by the latest developments. 

The biotechnology stock index on the Nasdaq electronic exchange rose cautiously until early December, but then leapt more than 140 percent to a peak in March on the strength of a series of announcements, especially the first-ever decoding of a human chromosome. 

Shares have since slipped about 40 percent, but analysts say investors appear to be biding their time until the next big announcement, such as news that researchers have mapped a human genome -- (AFP).

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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