- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Any milestone deserves a party. When it comes to celebrating the successful sequencing of the human genome after 50 years, it's time to pull out all the stops.
Monday's celebration in the Library of Congress' Great Hall had twofold significance. April 7 marked the formal completion of the Human Genome Project, in which nearly all of mankind's DNA our blueprint for life finally was charted. The National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Energy project, which spearheaded the U.S. role in a worldwide effort, cost $2.6 billion and was two years ahead of schedule.
It all came about through the publication 50 years earlier to the month of the DNA double-helix formation by James Watson and Francis Crick in their laboratory at Cambridge University. Thus the subtitle "50 Years From Model to Medicine" of a formal anniversary dinner sponsored by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), a nonprofit entity that supplements NIH's government funding with private resources.
Asked at the reception what he would do differently if given the chance, the buoyant Mr. Watson, 75, gave a diffident, off-the-wall answer: "I would hire some people to play tennis with me for pleasure." (Mr. Crick could not be present for health reasons.)
Such was the upbeat mood among some 500 guests who made merry in black tie while dining in candlelight as senior government officials heaped praise on those whose work has ensured the continued development of dramatic breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.
"To see the extraordinary power of this new science," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy thundered to the crowd, "we need look no further than the astounding fact that scientists have already determined the complete DNA sequence of the virus suspected to cause SARS only weeks after the disease was first described."
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson predicted a wide-ranging revolution in patient care, as well. "The approval of new drugs, like the leukemia drug Gleevec, illustrates how we can … isolate the genetic markers of cancer to find the ones that trigger the tumor," he said.
Howard University cancer specialist Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. was one of many prominent physicians present who agreed that there might be a cancer cure, or at least "a cure for many cancers" in his lifetime. "We're close and getting closer," he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was less sanguine, however, when it came to predicting a rapid response to the "evolving" SARS epidemic. "It's impossible to tell in what direction it's going to go," he said. "We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
Numerous Nobel laureates in bioscience and genetics were sighted among the guests (among them Marshall Nirenberg, Stanley Cohen and David Baltimore) along with physicians, science-savvy venture capitalists, biotech investors, pharmaceuticals executives, journalists, philanthropists and other friends of dinner co-chairman and FNIH board member Deeda Blair, who is just as noted for her knowledge and fund-raising prowess in the biomedical field as she is for being one of the world's best-dressed women.
Longtime friends and associates made sure to put her accomplishments in proper perspective.
"Her importance in the scheme of things has nothing to do with the way she dresses," billionaire philanthropist Lily Safra said of her tres soignee friend of 30 years. "She knows as much about medical science as any doctor."
Mrs. Safra's recent $3 million gift to build a lodge for young patients and their families at NIH is only one of the many public-private partnership projects that Mrs. Blair, FNIH Chairman Charles A. Sanders and their fellow board members are shepherding under foundation auspices.
Others include a $60 million grant from Pfizer to train future medical researchers, and the recently announced Gates Global Health Initiative, funded with $200 million from Bill and Melinda Gates, which will increase research on diseases in the developing world.
The final message of the evening certainly wasn't lost on those whose support is essential to future scientific advancement.
It is a new "renaissance," Mrs. Blair told the crowd at evening's end, and it must be "powered by its patrons" … who finance "new knowledge and innovation and set out to find new ideas."
"What we don't know yet could change everything," she said.


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