For Dr. Craig Venter, Discovery Can't Wait!

Article excerpt

Sequencing the human genome will signal one of the greatest biological accomplishments of our time.

In the world of medical discovery, speed matters. No one knows this better than the leader in the race to discover the blueprint of humanity, the human genome--Dr. Craig Venter. His company, Celera, is paving the way to the next revolution in medicine. The Post visited Dr. Venter and his distinguished colleagues at Celera's headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. Our mission: to learn what impact this new world of genetic breakthroughs will have on preventing disease in the years ahead.

Witty and personable, Dr. J. Craig Venter learned early in life that time is short and each day precious. In his office hangs a plaque that sums up his personal philosophy. "Time and tide wait for no man." The tide, of course, refers to Venter's avocation--sailing the seas aboard his sloop with his wife of 21 years biologist Claire Frasier, Ph.D.

PERRY: We noticed the photos on your office wall of you as a young medic working in the hospital during the Vietnam War, a chapter in your life that inspired you to go into medical research.

VENTER: Yes, I'm the skinny guy there with hair. It's hard to imagine. [Laughter]

SERVAAS: Do you get your baldness from your mother?

VENTER: Yes.

CONNEALLY: Discovering a cure for baldness would be a lucrative area.

SERVAAS: Can you do anything about it early on?

VENTER; YOU can be proud of it. [Laughter]

SERVAAS: We like your slogan: "Speed Matters: Discovery Can't Wait." You have been quoted as saying that soon, people may be able to send in a swab of their cheek cells to Celera to discover their individual genetic profiles and to check for predisposition to various diseases. You predicted that this service might soon be available and that people could subscribe to this service for approximately ten dollars a month. That sounds great, because our readers can afford ten dollars a month to find out if there is new information about their genetic makeup. You believe that early intervention is very important in diseases, such as diabetes and bipolar disorder. How soon can we hope that you will be able to make such a service available?

VENTER: Those were examples we gave when talking about what would be coming in the future. It's not ready yet. But we have almost finished the human genetic code. We announced a short while ago that we finished the sequencing phase. We have sequenced about 20-or-so million pieces--it is the world's largest jigsaw puzzle--and we are now using our supercomputer to assemble those pieces to get the exact genetic code of all the chromosomes.

This is the beginning of the new phase of medicine and understanding. It is hard to imagine that even ten years ago, we knew only a small percentage of the human genes. Everything that we thought we knew about medicine was without understanding most of the basic science of our own physiology. We are going forward on the assumption that not only does speed matter, but knowledge matters.

But speed does very much matter. I am not getting younger each day. And look at the millions of people in this country with cancer right now. The changes in science, for the most part, have not yielded the tremendous breakthroughs that we had hoped for. It is because human and cellular physiology is extremely complex. We have 100 trillion cells in our bodies. That's not what we see when we look at each other. It is hard to imagine that complexity.

In each one of our cells, we have 80,000 to 100,000 genes. The same chromosomes are in all those 100 trillion cells, and each cell is slightly different. They are expressing different genes and different amounts dynamically, so when something goes wrong with cellular growth, such as in cancer, it's hard to understand right now because we haven't had the complete instruction book. We haven't even known all the components. …