Human Genome Announcement Today

Published June 25th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Private company Celera Genomics said in a statement Friday that it would make next week's joint announcement together with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, the consortium which has been its main competitor in the race to sequence and map more than three billion units of human DNA. 

A press conference on the results of the two groups' decoding work is set for 12:30 p.m. (1630 GMT) today, Monday, at a Washington hotel, the statement from the Rockville, Maryland based firm said. 

Scientists expect the breakthrough will ultimately revolutionize the way drugs are made and diseases are treated, because knowing a gene's sequence can make it easier to learn how they cause or prevent disease. 

US President Bill Clinton, speaking in anticipation of the announcement, said "the whole landscape of health care" will be changed forever by decoding the human genetic pattern. 

Celera will announce "the first assembly of the human genome," the statement said, while the international consortium "will announce a working draft of the human genome." 

The two groups have been racing to finish the map of the human genome first, each using different methods. 

Earlier Friday, a spokesman for the British participant in the international consortium said the five countries involved in the project -- Britain, China, France, Japan and the United States -- would announce their results Monday. 

"We are part of a global announcement on Monday (today). Everybody is saying the same thing on the same day," said Chris Mihill, a spokesman for the Wellcome Trust, the medical research organisation sponsoring the scientific work at Cambridge University's Sanger Centre in southeastern England. 

Each country will announce results on its designated part of the map which as a whole will make up a human genetic identity card, he said. 

Two months ago Celera Genomics president Craig Venter announced that his group had achieved the sequencing of the more than three billion DNA letters in the humane genome. 

But the next stage, and the subject of the reported announcement next week, will be sequencing of the letters in order, to create a rough map of the entire human genome. 

The joint announcement is the result of months of delicate talks to bring an end to the fierce rivalry between the public and private groups, bent on realizing what is billed as one of the biggest scientific achievements of the century. 

Financed since 1990 by 18 nations, the Human Genome Project makes its discoveries available to researchers for free, while Celera Genomics, founded as a commercial enterprise in 1998, plans to sell genome discoveries to academics and industry. 

The mapping of the genome is an initial step opening the way for further research to identify the estimated 30,000 to 150,000 genes contained on each of the 23 pairs of chromosomes. 

 

Mounting Fears 

Twenty years from now, dozens of dreaded ailments may join plague, smallpox, cholera and pneumonia on the list of monsters slewn by the sword of science. 

"The genome will be the basis for the medicine of the future," predicts Craig Venter, a maverick US entrepreneur whose firm, Celera Genomics, had been racing against the Human Genome Project, the public-sector consortium in a bid to be first to announce the draft. 

Biotech engineers in North America and Europe are already embroiled in a multi-billion-dollar race to extract gold from the gene mountain. 

Their goal is to identify, block or repair flawed genes whose malfunctioning control over proteins -- the molecule that creates and maintains cells -- causes sickness. 

Their prime targets: the genes which cause hereditary forms of cancer, diabetes, AIDS, Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's disease, cardiovascular disease, baldness, obesity, asthma, psoriasis, deafness, epilepsy and migraine. 

A long road may lie ahead before any therapy or vaccine for any of these diseases will emerge -- and it will be even longer before researchers attain another cherished goal, of tailoring drugs to the individual in order to eliminate side effects. 

More immediately, genetic data will be used as a diagnostic tool. 

A decade or so from now, patients may go to the doctor with a "DNA chip," a credit-card-sized piece of plastic that will contain their genetic background, disclosing conditions to which they may be vulnerable and which medication could trigger an allergy. 

There is already a test to help people suffering from haemochromatosis, an inherited condition that causes iron levels to build up in the blood, to adjust their diet and avoid the worst symptoms. 

Other tests in the pipeline will forewarn people with a genetic predisposition to cancer or heart disease, conditions that can be triggered or worsened by smoking or fatty foods. 

The main approach of researchers is to devise a medicine that will disable or block proteins that cause harm. 

Other tactics focus on knocking out the flawed gene that caused the problem in the first place and replacing it with a normal gene, which would be spread around by the body by hiding it inside a disarmed virus. 

Gene therapy was first attempted in 1980, but has had mixed results. 

There was a glittering success last April, when French doctors announced a treatment enabling "bubble" children -- infants born with a crippling weakness of the immune system -- to leave their sterile plastic bubble and live a normal life. 

But there have also been setbacks, including a death in a US experiment, that have raised doubts about the present state of knowledge. 

Some diseases are caused by complex interactions between faults in several genes and so cannot be tackled by a simplistic "knock-out" therapy. 

And a gene which is replaced because it causes a problem in some area may have other, unknown functions that could be advantageous. 

In many people's eyes, genetic knowledge may generate as many problems as it resolves. 

Fears have been expressed that screening techniques or engineering will create "designer" children for the rich or eliminate characteristics perceived as deviating from the norm, such as homosexuality. 

And there are also many unresolved ethical questions, such as to whether someone has the right to patent something that occurs in the human body, and whether employers or health-insurance companies should have the right to one's genetic data -- (AFP).

© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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