A huge advance in our understanding of the human genetic code has opened the way to potential cures for killer diseases. It has also set private drug companies against the public sector Human Genome Project over whether patenting is appropriate for human genes.by Tom Wilkie / July 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Every night, as most of Britain sleeps, the computers at the Sanger research centre near Cambridge wake up and chatter briefly to the internet. Unreadable to all but the expert eye, their message consists of long strings of the four letters A, C, G, T repeated in different combinations.
These electronically published letters are spelling out the most important story ever written: the message of human heredity encoded in DNA. An international collaboration of scientific laboratories, of which the Sanger centre is part, is engaged in reading the entire human “genome”-every one of the 100,000 or so genes that makes a human being. By the year 2005, at a cost of $3 billion, the Human Genome Project-funded mainly by governments and public sector bodies-will be complete. The sequences of A’s, C’s, G’s, T’s which spell out the genetic code will have been teased out of human DNA and placed in the public domain for all to read.
But in May this year, the ordered progress of this project was rudely jolted. An American scientist, Craig Venter, broke ranks and announced a commercial deal with Perkin-Elmer, the company which makes the DNA analysing machines. Together they would use Perkin-Elmer’s latest analysis technology to sequence the human genome themselves, and they would do it in half the time for one tenth of the cost.
The reaction from the scientists of the human genome project was, well, human. They did not greet the news with enthusiasm. Others did: Perkin-Elmer’s share price leapt. For the stock market, DNA spells dollars. Annual sales of erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells-just one of the new generation of drugs derived from genetic research-have already broken through the $1 billion mark, placing it alongside Glaxo’s legendary Zantac anti-ulcer drug.
Other drugs are more familiar. Diabetics once had to inject themselves with pig insulin; now they use the human version-produced by bacteria which have been genetically reprogrammed by the addition of the human gene for making insulin. Children whose growth is stunted through a hormone deficiency no longer have to be injected with hormone extracted from the glands of human corpses.
The pharmaceutical industry is pinning its hopes on the idea that many diseases will prove to be genetic even though they are not inherited. The payoff is expected in three big areas: cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders. Very few forms of cancer are…