Locked in Battle for Key to Life: DR CRAIG VENTER V DR JOHN SULSTON; AS THE GENOME RIDDLE FINALLY UNRAVELS

By Toolis, Kevin | The Mirror (London, England), June 21, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Locked in Battle for Key to Life: DR CRAIG VENTER V DR JOHN SULSTON; AS THE GENOME RIDDLE FINALLY UNRAVELS


Toolis, Kevin, The Mirror (London, England)


WHY do some people die of cancer while others smoke 60-a-day and survive into their nineties?

Why do heart attacks run in some families? Is there a gay gene? Can you actually stop the ageing process?

Until now the answers to those questions have been a mystery.

But sometime this week scientists in America and Britain will announce that they have finally decoded the human genome.

And in that book of life we will eventually unravel the answers to all those questions - and possibly find a solution to every human disease.

Decoding the human genome is the greatest scientific achievement of our time and will lay the foundations of a whole new branch of medicine.

Essentially, by producing a complete map of a 'typical' set of human genes scientists will be able to isolate rogue genes by comparing one against the other.

It's a noble endeavour - but has turned into an old-fashioned war between two brilliant men.

One, Craig Venter, 54, is a swashbuckling American with a fondness for gold Rolex watches.

The other is John Sulston, 57, a quiet British scientist who drives a second-hand car and wears battered leather sandals.

It has also become a battle between American big business, who want to make stupendous profits, and a British charity, the Wellcome Trust, which believes the data in the human book of life should belong to mankind.

VENTER says he wants to be the Bill Gates of a new biotechnology revolution, biology's first billionaire.

Sulston, on the other hand, doubts that American drug companies are entitled to hold patents on what is essentially the essence of humankind.

"I believe that our basic information, our 'software', should be free and open for everyone to play with, to compete with, to try and make products from," says Sulston, who is head of the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Centre, near Cambridge

"I do not believe it should be under the control of one person. But that is what Craig Venter and his company Celera are trying to do."

Venter denies he wants a monopoly on the human genome, but admits he has already filed patents on over 6,500 human genes and that his company plans to sell the data for profit.

"I have been a thorn in their side for some time because I keep coming up with breakthroughs," he says. "It's much easier to demonise us than justify the hundreds of millions of dollars they have wasted."

It is, say his detractors, like taking out a patent on the human liver. Both men desperately want to win the race. The victor is almost certain to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

No one doubts that decoding the human genome is the beginning of a scientific revolution that will dramatically change our lives.

Within a decade you may be able to go to your GP, give a small blood sample, and be told exactly what is wrong with you.

And by checking your genetic code - your personal version of the human genome - the doctor will also be able to predict fairly easily how old you will be when you die and what disease is likely to kill you.

What those doctors will be doing is reading off the genetic code hidden inside every cell of the human body. In every one of the 100 trillion cells that make up the human body there are 46 chromosomes, 23 from your father and 23 from your mother.

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