More MS news articles for February 2001

Human genome to go public

February 9, 2001
Web posted at: 12:12 PM EST (1712 GMT)

LONDON England (CNN) -- On Monday, February 12, 2001, details will be released of one of the landmark moments in the history of science -- the mapping of the human genome.

In June 2000, scientists from Britain and the U.S. announced that, after more than 10 years of research, they had succeeded in deciphering the genetic make-up of human beings.

"This is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind," said U.S. President Bill Clinton at the time. "Humankind is on the verge of gaining immense new power to heal."

Now, seven months later, full details of the research that led to the discovery are to be published simultaneously on either side of the Atlantic.

Two separate organisations were involved in the genome breakthrough: The publicly-funded Anglo-U.S. Human Genome Project, and the Celera Genomics Corporation, a private company based in Maryland, U.S.

The results of Celera's research will be published in U.S. magazine Science. The Human Genome Project's findings, meanwhile, while appear in Britain's Nature Magazine.

"We said that once we had finished sequencing the genome we would make it available to the scientific community for free," Celera President Dr. Craig Venter told CNN Business International, "And we will be doing that on Monday morning at 10am."

Outstanding achievement in history of mankind

Mapping the chemical sequences for human DNA -- the chemical "letters" that make up the recipe of human life -- is a breakthrough that is expected to revolutionize the practice of medicine.

At a press conference at the time Dr. Michael Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust, which funded the British part of the Human Genome Project, said: "Mapping the human genome has been compared with putting a man on the moon, but I believe it is more than that.

"This is the outstanding achievement not only of our lifetime but perhaps in the history of mankind."

Specific sequences of DNA characters form the genes that make us what we are, govern our biological functions and determine our susceptibility to illnesses like cancer or diabetes.

Mapping involves three separate stages: sequencing, assembling and annotating the genes. In the sequencing phase, researchers identified the approximately 3.5 billion chemical letters (A, C, G, T) that make up human DNA, the building block of the genes.

In the assembling phase, they put those letters in the correct order, allowing them to "read" each gene.

Venter says that Celera has sequenced 99 percent of the human genome and had "assembled" 3.21 billion letters of genetic code.

The most difficult part, however, is yet to come.

In the final step, annotating, scientists must identify each gene and its function. They will look for genetic variations in different people -- variations that could be the cause of countless diseases.

That step is expected to take several years to complete. However, scientists said doctors would one day be able to study a person's genetic profile, determine his susceptibility to various diseases, and design a course of treatment to prevent illness.

"You're going to see a proliferation of discoveries about the genetic contributions to diabetes and heart disease and high blood pressure and schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis and on down the list," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. wing of the Human Genome Project, told CNN.

Venter agrees: "This is going to have a huge impact on humanity," he says, "We hope it's going to drive the development of new pharmaceuticals, so overall its going to save probably billions of dollars a year in research."

Benefits and fears

Venter expects that the co-operation between public and private organisations will be maintained as work continues on unravelling the mysteries of the genome.

"There was some degree of competitiveness," he says, "But that was actually wonderful thing because you have two totally independent efforts that have given us independent views and conformation of what we find in the genetic code.

"Going forward you're going to see much more public-private co-operation that will help drive research even faster."

Despite the excitement surrounding the genome discovery, there have also been fears that the information might be abused.

In a CNN-Time magazine poll taken at the time of the discovery 46 percent of respondents said they expected harmful results from the endeavour, with only forty percent expecting benefits.

At the same time, however, a majority of respondents -- 61 percent -- said they would want to know if they were predisposed to developing a genetic disease.

Venter for one is in no doubt about the significance, and potential benefits of the discovery.

"It will have a huge impact on humanity," he says, "Because it helps show that we are not the centre of the biological universe."