- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

Government-backed scientists will fete themselves in April during a monthlong celebration of the marvels of the human genetic code. They'll toast the much-hyped "map of life," which genome researchers believe will lead to cures for diseases and greatly enrich biotech firms.
But as the National Human Genome Research Institute introduces its plans for putting the gene map to work helping humankind, it will need to forgive investors for not sharing in all the excitement.
The genomics revolution indeed has led to a few medical breakthroughs but it has cost investors billions of dollars with few returns.
"Understanding the human genome is expected to lead to the greatest evolution in medicine since the introduction of antibiotics," said the institute's director, Francis Collins, counseling patience for anyone seeking cures and profits.
The "genomics revolution" certainly has led to a few medical breakthroughs since Mr. Collins' government-supported gene hunters and their archrivals at the J. Craig Venter-led Celera Genomics simultaneously introduced their maps in June 2000.
As it turned out, those maps included much terra incognita thousands of genes were uncharted. After much more hard work, the gene wizards now say the code is "substantially complete."
Already, some diagnostic tests have resulted from knowing the locations and functions of some of the thousands of genes buried within the miles-long strands of genetic material balled together in every cell of the human body.
As a result, some people susceptible to breast cancer or osteoporosis are leading healthier lives.
A few companies have had some success developing hardware and software to sift through the genetic strands, most of which is useless garble, to find meaningful genes. IBM Corp. and DeCode Genetics Inc. of Iceland said Thursday they would jointly sell DeCode's gene-mining software to drug makers, biotech firms and other companies in hopes of ringing up about $100 million in sales over a three-year period.
But all of this is small potatoes.
The big payoff powerful disease-fighting medicines has yet to materialize.
Mr. Collins and other genomic scientists still firmly believe cures can be found by slogging through the estimated 30,000 to 60,000 human genes to identify mutations that cause disease, or genes that somehow protect against illness.
But they now warn that it may take a decade or more to turn today's fairly crude maps of life's secrets into detailed topographical charts.
Their advice comes too late for the investors who have sunk billions of dollars into money-losing genomics companies, many of which are altering their business plans dramatically, or closing altogether.
The 23 publicly traded genomics companies tracked by the investor newsletter BioCentury dropped in value a combined 71 percent last year, making it one of the hardest-hit sectors of 2002. In comparison, the American Stock Exchange biotech index dropped 40 percent, and the Nasdaq Stock Market fell 30 percent.
"There was a certain amount of excess belief that it was going to lead to instant solutions to human health," Dr. Robert Stein, president of Incyte Corp., said of the human genome's decoding.
A gene-hunting pioneer based in Palo Alto, Calif., Incyte is hurriedly recasting itself as a drug maker after replacing its management team and laying off 250 workers.
Its stock trades around $4 a share, far off its high of nearly $190 three years ago. Last month, the company formally dropped the word "Genomics" from its name.
"Obviously, we are not the only genomics company to move into drug discovery," Incyte Chief Executive Paul Friedman said as he pitched the new plan to investors at a recent San Francisco health care conference.
It's hard to understate the changes that have occurred to genomics companies since Mr. Collins and Mr. Venter jointly presented their teams' genome maps on the White House lawn.
Even genomics leader Celera is all but abandoning the field and attempting to remake itself as a drug maker.
The company fired the flamboyant Mr. Venter, and has "made a significant transformation during the last 18 months," said President Kathy Ordonez.
Stock in the Rockville-based Celera peaked at $276 a share in February 2000, meaning investors had plowed a combined $14 billion into the company. The company now is valued around $725 million. Celera laid off 16 percent of its workers in June.
"Having the human genome was an incredibly crucial step," Ms. Ordonez said, but understanding what it means and translating that knowledge into medicines is the key to profitability.
Besides, much of what the companies tried to sell was freely available via the Internet.
"In retrospect, most observers have concluded that business models founded on the idea of making money from restricted databases of precompetitive genomic information were ill-conceived, and most have failed or undergone major restructuring into drug development companies," Mr. Collins said in the e-mail interview.

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