Human Genome Projects Reach a 'Historic Point'

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- In what was called a "historic point in the 100,000-year record of humanity," scientists announced that the human genetic code essentially has been deciphered, a monumental achievement that opens a dramatic new frontier in medicine.

Leaders of competing public and private efforts said at a White House ceremony yesterday that they have virtually completed assembly of what they called "the book of life" -- nature's genetic instruction manual for making and maintaining human beings.

Knowing the human genetic code, said President Clinton, will give science "an immense new power to heal" by attacking disease "at its genetic roots."

Because of the new genetic knowledge, said the president, "our children may know cancer only as a constellation of stars" and not as a disease that kills and maims."

Clinton also cautioned that the genetic map must never be used to segregate, discriminate or invade the privacy of human beings. Legislation is circulating in Congress that offers such protection.

J. Craig Venter, chief scientist of Celera Genomics, a Rockville, Md., company that completed the genome project in just nine months using powerful computers, said the work "creates at least the potential" to cure cancer and to find previously impossible treatments for hundreds of diseases that have plagued human for centuries.

"Today . . . marks an historic point in the 100,000-year record of humanity," Venter told an East Room audience that included ambassadors, agency chiefs, scientists and, participating from London on a television hookup, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair said mapping the genome "has implications far surpassing even the discovery of antibiotics."

"We have caught a glimpse of an instruction book previously known only to God," said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and leader of the international, publicly financed Human Genome Project.

The public effort has taken more than five years and $300 million, with the National Institutes of Health funding about half. Six countries were involved, with major portions of the genome sequenced by the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Centre in Britain, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass.; Washington University at St. Louis and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Researchers in China, Germany, France and Japan also contributed. …