Did we overpay for the genome map?

A visitor views a digital representation of the human genome at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2001.

TEXT OF STORY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Who are we? It's one of life's big questions. This summer we may have begun to find the answer with the completion of a map of man's genetic make up. The publicly-funded Human Genome Project has been hailed as a major scientific achievement, but there's been a lot of debate on whether it could have been done faster and cheaper if the private sector had done it alone. Janet Babin explores that issue from the Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: The Human Genome Project began in 1990. The goal was to identify all the genes and DNA sequences that make up the Book of Life.

Along the road to discovery the publicly funded effort competed, then worked together with a private company, Celera, run by Craig Venter, a sort of Bill Gates of biotechnology. Many lauded the collaboration, saying it would speed up the research results.

In 2000, Dr. Francis Collins with the National Human Genome Research Institute joined Venter and President Clinton at the White House for the big announcement:

[ PRESIDENT CLINTON:"We are here to celebrate the completion of the first survey of the human genome. Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind." ]

But the result was just a rough draft. Not until this summer were all 23 chromosome pairs sequenced.

Dr. Simon Gregory, now at Duke, led the project in Britain. He says this time the human genome project is . . .

SIMON GREGORY:"Definitely done. I can assure you that Chromosome 1 is the largest and the last."

Now some argue that the genome would have been completed faster if left to the private sector.

Some biotech firms avoided genome research because the public project made the data freely available on the Internet, so companies couldn't profit from patents.

Juan Enriquez founded biotech company Synthetic Genomics with Venter. He says the public project hampered business's attempts to innovate:

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: "Self-perpetuating government bureaucracies start out with the best of intentions, and then get taken over by people who have ever-larger egos. And those ever-larger egos make it very hard for the private sector to participate in this."

Critics point out the genome has yet to produce the kinds of miracle drugs anticipated by the research, cures for things like Multiple Sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's Disease.

But Genome Institute director Francis Collins says the benefits of this kind of extensive research can take awhile to surface:

FRANCIS COLLINS:"An exciting new development is always anticipated to have more immediate consequences than it does, but you always underestimate its long-term consequences."

In fact, Duke professor Greg Wray says the genome never would have been mapped in such detail if left up to the private sector because it wouldn't have been cost-efficient.

He says the public and private teams benefited from each other's work.

GREG WRAY: "If we'd left the human genome sequencing to the private sector, it would have been cheaper. But we would have gotten a different product."

And he says we might have missed out on some of the lasting social and economic benefits.

All told, the human genome project cost $2.7 billion, slightly under its original budget. According to the Institute, eight new drugs are on the market because of its research and many more are on the way.

In Durham, N.C., I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...