- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

J. Craig Venter has been called arrogant, difficult, a faker in the world of science.

Yet, his colleagues also call him brilliant and acknowledge that few would have had the determination and guts to do what he did.

Dr. Venter, 54, left the traditionally government-sponsored science sector in 1998 to become a business executive.

It took about a year for Celera to organize. But nine months after the company began mapping the genome, Dr. Venter's brain child was delivered. The map of the genome was published last month in a premier medical journal, Science. Through a series of lines divided into tiny segments of different colors and representing different genes, the map shows each gene and its function, either known or hypothesized.

This knowledge is seen as groundbreaking and potentially lucrative for business because it can lead to the discovery of disease causes, and treatments and cures for deadly plagues like cancer and AIDS.

Dr. Venter, in a recent interview with The Washington Times, said his company, Celera Genomics of Rockville, is only beginning its work.

"Finishing the genome has always been a new starting point, not an end point," he says. "And we are in the fortunate position of having over $1 billion in the bank, so we can go to the next step."

Celera, last week, bought a minority stake under a third in HuBit Genomix Inc., a Japanese venture to analyze genetic variations responsible for certain human traits, illnesses and drug tolerance.

This is the latest in a string of deals Celera has been making since it began mapping the human genome. Pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer Inc., American Home Products Corp., and Novartis AG are just some of its biggest and earliest clients. Celera is also in a research agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy and Compaq Computers, which plans to build a powerful computer that will mine the genome for useful information.

Just in the past month, Celera gained several new clients, including biotech companies Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Lynx Therapeutics Inc., and AMDeC LLC, a consortium of 37 of New York's best medical schools and research institutes.

The increasing number of subscribers to Celera's database helped the company rack $42.75 million in sales in fiscal 2000. That's almost four times as much as the year before, and even higher than the $4.21 million it posted for 1998.

"How and what data is available and what tools are used to analyze it … is an area evolving very quickly," says Emily Hall, an analyst with Morningstar who tracks the company. "Celera does have a lot of promise."

But the big question is whether Celera can keep the lead in the business.

"They are in a good position to start out with because they have a lot of money, and the support of their system company," says Ms. Hall, referring to Applied Biosystems, which makes the sequencers Celera used to map the genome.

"This all bodes well for Celera," she adds. But it does make the company's stock volatile, "because it's hard to forecast companies like this and guess what they can produce" in the long run.

Shares of Celera traded as high as $250 exactly a year ago on the New York Stock Exchange. Today the stock hovers in the mid-$20s.

But Dr. Venter is not one to become discouraged. When he talks of Celera's development, he sounds proud and determined rather than arrogant.

"As a company in the early stages, we've just accomplished a lot," he says. Then he laughs and continues, "People think because of all our success we must have been around a decade we keep getting asked by analysts for the last 10 years of earnings."

Common misconceptions surround not only the personality of Dr. Venter, but also of the ultimate goals of his company. Celera, he says, is not seeking to learn how to alter genes in order to cure diseases. Its purpose is to develop diagnostics tools that will help doctors better understand a patient's likelihood of getting a disease. Such knowledge could also assist in early treatment for disease.

To describe what the genome is, and how it will revolutionize medicine, Dr. Venter refers to the large map from Science. He finds a copy of the magazine, pulls out the beach-towel-sized map, and lays it out on the conference table in his roomy office. With a child's enthusiasm, he then points to rainbow-colored lines, and the tale of the genome.

It's like a book, he says, made up of 3 billion letters. The sequences of some letters form words, sentences, stories. Each story is a gene, carrying the instructions to different bodily functions. But there are other sentences and chapters that are less coherent.

Overall, the book doesn't tell a full story, but it spells out the sequence of all the letters, and indicates where most stories begin and end.

Now Celera is studying the genome to find out the exact meaning of each story, specifically what genes determine illnesses and how those can be prevented or treated.

"We need to change disease outcome. A quarter of a million people die of cancer each year," says Dr. Venter, who earned a doctorate in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California at San Diego and started his biochemical research at the National Institutes of Health.

Three types of cancer breast cancer, colon cancer and pancreatic cancer are the first three diseases Celera is focusing on curing.

But with progress comes fear, and talk of bioscience leading to "designer babies" and altered genes could lead to the repression of work done by companies like Celera, and Dr. Venter is afraid of that.

"We have had this thing where society learns science through science fiction movies," he says, thoughtfully. "We think [of genes] as substitutes for human traits and characteristics … because we now know the code, people fear everything about their lives will be known. And that simply is not the case."

"It is not the goal of science, or of Celera, to manipulate, but to understand the genetic code," he adds. "We are not smart enough to know how to do that … it's dangerous and not appropriate."

Educating the public to appreciate and not fear genetic discoveries will be one of the biggest challenges Celera and other genes-studying companies will have to face in the future, he says.

The knowledge that a woman has a predisposition for breast cancer, for instance, "will give probabilities and possibilities," not a definite yes, she will have the disease. A person's genome, in fact, will give "yes or no answers in only some cases," says Dr. Venter.

Just because one gene indicates a person may be susceptible to a certain illness, it does not mean that gene is "bad." He explains that numerous genes are associated with different diseases in various ways. So two persons can have the same genetic change, yet one could be healthy and the other sick.

Genetic research is an old field, where results take a long time. But frustration is not a new feeling for Dr. Venter; he has know it since he spent 10 years trying to isolate a single gene at the start of his career. Eventually, he realized there was a quick way to find the genes, a practice referred to as the "shotgun technique."

But the Human Genome Project, a government-funded project started in 1990 with the intention of mapping the genome in 15 years for $3 billion, used a different technique.

Yet Dr. Venter's work caught the eye of a venture capitalist who wanted to start a gene-finding company. Dr. Venter wanted to remain in the nonprofit world, so the investor helped start the nonprofit Institute for Genomic Research in Gaithersburg, supporting institute's work with that of his new company, Human Genome Sciences.

Dr. Venter worked at the institute until 1998. Today it is run by his wife, Dr. Claire Fraser. Much of his work from those years remains intellectual property of Human Genome Sciences, which today is run by Dr. William Haseltine one of Dr. Venter's critics.

In 1998 Dr. Venter finally decided to run Celera, which was founded with the motto "Speed Matters."


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