- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

A new era in medicine began yesterday when once-feuding scientists confirmed they have produced a draft of the human genome, achieving what is being called one of the greatest feats in the history of science.

Capping prior, independent announcements in Japan and France, President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that researchers from more than 18 countries had determined the exact order of the chemical building blocks of life.

That means they have produced what many call the "blueprint of life," providing a key that will be used to disclose the mysteries of heredity and the sources of disease. The remarkable and spectacularly huge analysis is expected to pave the way for developing cures for such currently incurable ailments as heart disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Parkinson's disease and even cancer.

At a White House announcement ceremony, Mr. Clinton called yesterday "a day for the ages." Joining him and speaking from London via satellite, Mr. Blair said we are witnessing "a revolution in medical science whose implications far surpass even the discovery of antibiotics, the first great technological triumph of the 21st century." And earlier in Japan, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said the scientists had made "an immense step forward for humanity in deciphering the makeup of life itself."

Great Britain's Michael Dexter, head of the trust that funded Britain's contribution to the discovery, said, "This is the outstanding achievement not only of our lifetime, but in terms of human history … because the Human Genome Project does have the potential to impact on the lives of every person on this planet."

The scientists who accomplished the landmark achievement are associated with two formerly competing groups. One was led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health's publicly financed Human Genome Project. The project is a consortium of various U.S. government and academic centers working with assistance from Great Britain's Sanger Centre at Cambridge University and added research by academic centers in France, Germany, Japan, and China.

The other group is the investor-owned Celera Genomics Corp. of Rockville, Md., founded and headed by Dr. J. Craig Venter, a former director of NIH's Institute for Genomics Research. The reportedly feisty Dr. Venter quit NIH and formed Celera when colleagues spurned his plan for quickly sequencing the genome.

Dr. Venter and Human Genome Project leaders had been vying in an unfriendly race to complete the genome sequencing first. Recently, the Clinton administration prevailed on the antagonistic scientists to reconcile and paved the way for yesterday's joint announcement.

The genome refers to the full set of 23 human chromosomes.

Chromosomes are organisms within the body's microscopic cells that contain DNA and the basic sources for all inheritable human traits the genes that determine people's eye color, intelligence, and even their susceptibility to disease.

The sequencing of the genome means scientists have succeeded in using supercomputers to isolate and locate the chemical bits and parts that they know are responsible for building and sustaining life.

Medical researchers are now confident that within the decade they will be able to screen people to see who is susceptible to illnesses like stroke or diabetes and thus begin preventive measures.

In time say 15 years they will be able to tailor medical treatments to the genetic makeup of each individual. Such therapies will be more effective with fewer side effects. Within 25 years, they expect to eliminate diseases such as sickle-cell anemia.

Beyond that, said John Sulston, director of Britain's Sanger Centre, "We've now got to the point in human history where for the first time we are going to hold in our hands the set of instructions to make a human being. That is an incredible philosophical step forward and will change, I think, the way we think of ourselves."

Indeed, Dr. Venter, who yesterday appeared alongside Francis Collins, head of NIH's Genome Project, noted that the Celera team had mapped the genetic codes of five persons of different races and ethnic groups. He said the scientists studying the genetics of these people were unable to distinguish the genes by ethnicity.

"What we've shown is the concept of race has no scientific basis," Dr. Venter said.

Announcement of the genome sequencing also could affect the way insurers, employers, even governments think about people, and that has raised fears.

There is concern that insurers might require insurance applicants to be genetically screened so they can use the results to refuse policies to those most likely to become ill or die prematurely.

There is concern that employers might use such genetic testing to discriminate against employees. Some fear governments might apply the knowledge of the genome to create special beings whose genes were manipulated to produce super-intelligent individuals or superior athletes.

Such worries led Mr. Clinton to urge nations to form a "joint endeavor [like that] we had with the human genome to deal with the implications of this [achievement], to deal with the legal, the social, the ethical implications."

But in the euphoria of yesterday's announcement, the negative thoughts tended only to exemplify the grandeur of the researchers' work. For as the NIH's Mr. Collins said in an interview with the Associated Press, "We've been racing down white water in a narrow channel trying to get the sequencing done. Now we're opening into the ocean" of limitless research possibilities.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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