Racing To Map Gene Blueprint

Researchers are attempting to locate the l00,000 genes that serve as the blueprints for human traits, defects, diseases and all that implies.

The search also is bringing scientists closer and closer to a core question: Can those who discover the blueprints for human traits patent them and own them?

It is a miracle of modern medicine, reports CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews. Every day scientists take pure human DNA, the building block of life, and, in the greatest human science project ever, they grow the DNA and then separate its parts so a computer can read its chemical sequence. They call it the human genome.

"It's our instruction book for human biology, and the notion that we could actually read that book in any of our lifetimes would have been considered unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago," says Dr. Francis Collins, chief of the government's genome project.

"We will read that book early next year. It will hold the complete genetic spelling for traits like hair color or strength and, most important, human disease," says Collins.

"Medicine will be transformed in ways, I think, we cannot even quite glimpse," he says. "We are going to know why I am at risk for one thing and you are at risk for another."

As excited as he is about the promise of genetic medicine, Collins has a problem. "There's a bit of a gold rush going on." he says.

Make that a gene rush. Collins hates to admit it, but he is in a race to discover the human genome before another person does.

Craig Venter of Celara Genomics asserts that he has a bigger computer than Collins does. "This is the biggest sequencing lab in the world," Venter says.

"We're not going to lose," Venter says.

Celera is a private company staking claim to the genome. Venter has filed more than 6,000 patents on genes and even on the pieces of genes that might cause disease. He plans to sell that information by subscription to drug companies, universities and whomever will pay.

"We're trying to only file patents on those things that we know the pharmaceutical industry - because they've told us what they want, what they'll use immediately - will take forward," Venter says.

The right to own and to patent a discovery has long been part of the American way; the profit motive fuels innovation. But in this particular competition, private entrepreneurs are winning patents to some keys to human life, and many believe that's dangerous.

"Basically my medical practice as a physician is being prevented because of patents," says Dr. Debra Leonard, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Leonard says gene patents are being abused. She complains that her hospital has had to stop testing for the Alzheimer's and breast cancer genes, not because the patent holders invented a therapy or test; they patented the genes themselves.

"Clinical laboratories are being stopped from diagnostic testing. t's already happening in my laboratory, and it's happening in other laboratories," says Leonard.

In a rush to prevent those patents, Collins has ordered government labs to make every new gene discovery public knowledge.

Collins believes there should be patents for true genetic inventions but no private ownership of the code itself.

Somebody else who has a great idea about what a gene might do, a way in which to turn that gene into a product for public benefit, may be discouraged from doing so.

Venter says he's misunderstood. He doesn't want the genes, he promises; he only wants the data every genetic scientist will need to buy.

"Now everybody wins, because it's going to be years if not a decade faster than it was going to happen before," Venter says.

"Competition is good," he adds.

That's how it stands. Every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it's robot vs. robot, public computer vs. private computer - a race to literally write the book of life and in the process determine who owns it.

©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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