To Fund Gene Quest, Venter
By ANTONIO REGALADO
Will having a famed scientist map your genes become the ultimate status symbol?
J. Craig Venter, the business-minded biologist who helped decode the human genome, said he plans to unravel the genes of 1,000 people within two years.
In order to fund the effort, Dr. Venter says he is looking for donors willing to ante up as much as $500,000 to be among those whose DNA gets sequenced. Several wealthy individuals have already agreed, Dr. Venter said, although he declined to name them.
In the future, scientists expect millions of people will have their DNA decoded in order to benefit from detailed predictions about their susceptibility to common diseases or which medicines are most likely to benefit them.
Dr. Venter says his DNA sequencing plans are a step toward that goal, and part of a personal quest to "apply the genome to people, not to just put it on a pedestal."
As head of Celera Genomics Group, a unit of Applera Corp., Norwalk, Conn., Dr. Venter raced the public-sector Human Genome Project to produce a for-profit copy of the human genetic code in 2001. After being ousted by the company early this year, Dr. Venter stirred further controversy when he revealed that his own DNA was among that decoded, making him the first person ever to know his complete genetic make-up.
While the existing genome maps are a vital reference guide to human inheritance, each individual's genetic make-up contains important differences.
At this stage, however, a personalized gene map probably has little value. "I wonder what people really think they are going to get," says Arthur Caplan, a biomedical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "I don't think I would spend $500 on it, since nothing hinges on it right now that could help or harm me very much." That is because biologists remain uncertain about the genetic roots of most diseases, including diabetes and schizophrenia.
Indeed, discovering those links is the scientific aim of Dr. Venter's project.
Other teams have already raced ahead with similar efforts. Bradley Margus, chief executive of closely held Perlegen Sciences Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., said that during the past year and a half his company has decoded the complete genomes of 25 people. Each complete sequence costs about $1.5 million and takes about 10 days.
By contrast, Dr. Venter's effort will ignore vast stretches of "junk" DNA whose biological role remains murky, homing in on just the 2% or so of human DNA that accounts for known genes. Genes carry the blueprints for making proteins, themselves the building blocks of human cells and tissues.
The effort will be carried out in Rockville, Md., where a consortium of nonprofit research centers founded by Dr. Venter is building a large DNA sequencing facility.
But at a time when stock portfolios are down and established charities are suffering, it isn't clear how many donors will want to flock to Mr. Venter's cause. "I hope, but don't expect, that many people will sign up," says George Church, a genomics expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Dr. Church, who was familiar with Dr. Venter's plans, said that with time, costs could plunge: "The goal," he says, "is the $1,000 genome."
Write to Antonio Regalado at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated October 2, 2002 7:54 a.m. EDT
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