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Private Firm Announces Plans to Map Entire Human Genome

By Justin Gillis and Rick Weiss
The Washington Post

Scientists Monday said they would form a new company in Rockville, Md., that aims to unravel the entire human genetic code by the year 2001, four years sooner than the federal government expects to complete a similar project.

The privately funded enterprise, which backers said could be completed for perhaps one-tenth the cost of the government program, raised immediate questions about the relevance and future of the $3 billion, 15-year federal effort. It also raised fresh concerns about the prospect of the human genetic code being expropriated by entrepreneurs who plan to patent and sell access to the most medically valuable parts.

Some biotechnology experts not involved in the new company raved about the venture, saying it promises to generate enormous amounts of genetic data that may quickly be translated into better diagnostic tests and treatments for diseases.

But other experts expressed skepticism that the company could achieve its ambitious goals, saying the new technology remains unproven and the novel analytical approach to be used may generate less useful information than other methods.

Federal officials said the accelerating government effort to find and decode all 60,000 or more genes in the human body would remain on its current course for the next 12 to 18 months, by which time it will be clearer whether the project should change its approach to accommodate the new players in the field.

"It would be vastly premature to go out and change the plan of our genome centers," said Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, the branch of the National Institutes of Health that co-directs the federal effort with the Department of Energy.

The new company - not yet named - will be led by J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in finding fast, cheap ways to decode genetic information. It will be backed by Perkin-Elmer Corp. of Norwalk, Conn., a major supplier of equipment for genetic analysis, and will depend on machines developed by Perkin-Elmer.

The new venture, which expects to go into operation early in 1999, will be 80 percent owned by Perkin-Elmer.

The company will employ between 400 and 800 people to run 230 specialized new machines - each about the size of a minibar refrigerator - that will operate 24 hours a day decoding information from human genes that have been isolated from sperm and other cells, Venter said. The electric bill alone is expected to hit $5,000 a day.

Several biotechnology companies, including Human Genome Sciences, are in the business of decoding genetic information and selling it to pharmaceutical companies and others who hope to profit. Most of these biotech companies claim to have decoded more than 80 percent of human genes already, although the function of most remains a mystery.

These companies have been granted scores of patents on their genetic discoveries, raising fears among some critics that a handful of companies will control the commercialization of a vast and potentially lucrative biological resource. Those fears arose again Monday with Venter's announcement of his new project.

"Even though they are promising public access, they control the terms and there is a history of terms being more onerous than is acceptable to most scientists," said Maynard Olson, a medical geneticist at the University of Washington.

Venter said that with the exception of perhaps 100 to 300 genetic sequences that he expects will show special commercial promise, the company will make all the genetic information available free to the world's scientists. "It would be morally wrong to hold the data hostage and keep it secret," he said.

Perkin-Elmer senior vice president Michael W. Hunkapiller said the company will make money by analyzing the genetic information and then selling the results to pharmaceutical companies. The company also plans to analyze the tiny genetic differences between individuals, as opposed to getting a "generic" genetic sequence for the average human being. That new level of information, also being sought by federal laboratories, may help drug companies customize medicines for individuals or small groups of people.

Venter's technique will differ markedly from those used by biotech companies. Those companies use a shortcut that deliberately omits large amounts of information whose role in the body is unclear.

By contrast, Venter's project aims to unravel every bit of genetic information, regardless of whether it's suspected to be useful, and to organize the resulting database into a massive and readily consulted blueprint of human life.

To do so, the Perkin-Elmer machines will use a controversial approach called "shotgun whole genome sequencing." Instead of focusing on large pieces of DNA, this process decodes tiny pieces that later must be assembled like interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Because of the added difficulty of dealing with so many small pieces, the resulting picture of the human genome is likely to be peppered with more and larger holes than that produced by the federal program, Collins said.