Next Stage for Genomics

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ENOMICS may have come close to becoming a household word this year, thanks to the hype that surrounded the contest to produce the first map of the human genome. But the real race - to discover new medicines using this information - has only just begun.

US-based Human Genome Sciences has been at the forefront of this race. Founded in 1992 by former Harvard Medical School professor William Haseltine, today its chairman and chief executive, HGS could bring its first drug to market in the next three to four years.

In Paris last week for the annual healthcare conference run by bank SG Cowen, Haseltine said the key question facing the industry today was how to develop drugs to treat and cure disease.

Unlike many of his competitors, Haseltine argues that the sequencing of the human genome is not a necessary step towards developing new medicines. He says: "Genomic data is very important to understand evolution, but not medicine. The problem we realised from the beginning was that even if you have the genomic sequence, you cannot find a gene unless you have a receptor. In other words, you need messenger RNA (ribo-nucleic acid)."

Rather than relying on the map of the genome and the genes themselves, HGS's method uses this messenger RNA, a substance produced every time a gene becomes active.

HGS's first product, Repifermin, for example, which is likely to be used in the treatment of severe, intractable wounds, is being developed from its analysis of a vast database of different messenger RNAs and associated proteins.

Unlike many of its competitors, HGS has concentrated most of its efforts on extracting genes and their related proteins from the genome using DNA-sequencing technology developed by Craig Venter, Haseltine's former partner and now head of rival Celera Genomics. In the process, it became the first company to isolate a virtually complete set of human genes.

In 1993, Haseltine struck the industry's first genomics-driven deal with SmithKline Beecham when it licensed out its gene database. The deal pioneered the partnerships that have been struck since between companies through the industry.

Today, HGS has already filed patents on more than 11,000 genes and has close to 20 partnerships - the bulk of its revenues comes from colla-borations with big pharmaceutical companies such as SmithKline and Takeda Chemicals of Japan which license the use of its database. …