- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

Celera Genomics, a Rockville, Md., company racing to complete a map of the human genetic blueprint, said Thursday it has decoded 99 percent of the human DNA.

Once assembled, the DNA map will help scientists discover causes of disease and find treatments. By the end of the decade, scientists hope to use the new knowledge of the human body to find cures for diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

"It's a very important breakthrough," said Alan Auerbach, an analyst with First Security Van Kasper in New York. "In sequencing the entire genome, they are really expanding knowledge in the field of genomic research."

Celera has pulled ahead in a race with an international government consortium effort, which is costing $3 billion compared with Celera's $200 million, to map up to 100,000 genes found in the human body.

The news sent biotech stocks soaring and caused analysts to praise the wonder of the discovery.

"This is kind of a beginning of a new era," said Vandana Bapna, an analyst with Offutt Securities in Baltimore. "People have been waiting and expecting it's like landing on the moon."

The human genome is a biological map laying out the sequence of the estimated 3.5 billion pairs of chemicals that make up the DNA in each human cell. Those chemical arrangements comprise the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 human genes, which in turn carry the instructions for all the body's processes.

Stocks of PE Corp., Celera's parent company, doubled since Tuesday, closing after a $25 single-day increase to $140 Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange.

The government-sponsored effort, called the Human Genome Project, was founded 10 years ago under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. The project is decoding human DNA and putting it in order at the same time, while Celera concentrated on the decoding first.

"Now that we have completed the sequencing of one human being's genome, we will turn our computational power to the task of ordering the human genome," Celera's President and Chief Executive Officer J. Craig Venter said in a statement.

Thursday, Mr. Venter gave an update of Celera's work before the House subcommittee on energy and the environment, a panel that questioned him in June 1998 about his company's project.

The public and private competitors have long quarreled, as the public effort's backers urged genomics companies to share their discoveries, and Celera has kept its work to itself.

Celera will not release any of its data until the map of the human genome is complete by the end of the year.

Samuel Broder, executive vice president of Celera and former director of the National Cancer Institute, said Celera is "very much ahead of schedule."

"The expectation was that this would be unbelievably difficult," he said. "But the technologies all worked better than anticipated."

The public project, which is using the same technologies, is two-thirds complete. But a "finished and polished-up" version won't be available until 2003, said Richard Wilson, co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University in St. Louis, which is one of the public project's research sites.

He said Celera is doing nothing more than repackaging Human Genome Project research, adding to it, and "locking it up and selling it to subscribers."

Celera has five major clients for its gene database: Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc., Pharmacia Corp., Novartis AG and Takeda Chemical Industries Ltd.

Celera's announcement came at the end of a monthlong gradual 37 percent drop in biotech industry shares that occurred when a White House spokesman erroneously said President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were against allowing genes to be patented.

While genes themselves cannot be patented, their applications can be, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The White House statement, which injected a new uncertainty into genomic research, rattled the markets.

The president tried to repair the damage Wednesday by saying, "Tony Blair and I crashed the markets for a day or two and I didn't mean to… . Where public money contributed to basic research, we ought to get it [gene information] out there. If someone did it with private money, they ought to get a patent on it."

The president's clarification caused a jump in stocks of companies like Incyte Genomics of Palo Alto, Calif., and Human Genome Sciences of Rockville, both of which compete with Celera in the field of genomics the application of genetic knowledge to drug discovery and development.

Celera recently published the complete map of a fruit fly's genetic makeup, and it now plans to do the same with a mouse. But it's Celera's work on the human code that captured the imagination of Greg Bear, the author of more than 20 science fiction books, among them "Darwin's Radio," "Eon" and "Anvil of Stars."

"They actually have a map of a city, let's say, so we even know where the citizens live," said Mr. Bear, describing the decoded DNA. "But there is no way to track what those citizens are doing all the time they don't know most of the jobs these citizens perform and how they talk to each other… . It's absolutely marvelous that we have a map of the city, but we still have very little understanding of what it does."

"This is right up there, as part of great late-20th-century discoveries, probably even a part of the Enlightenment quest to understand what it means to be human," he said.

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