CBC In Depth
The Human Genome Project
Peter Hadzipetros and Charly Smith, CBC News Online
June 2000

"Now the real work begins."

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, predicts that mapping the human genetic code will revolutionize medicine. The breakthrough, he says, will allow humans for the first time "to read our own instruction book."

News conferences in London and Washington on Monday, June 26, 2000 marked the virtual completion of the first rough map of the human genetic code. It's been a ten year race that has cost billions of dollars � and pitted a private corporation against a publicly funded initiative involving 18 countries.

The International Human Genome Project (IHGP) was set up in 1990 to decode the 3.1 billion sub-units of DNA, the chemical code that makes up the recipe of life.

So far, the initiative has chemically mapped 90 per cent of human DNA. It's expected to take another two years to complete this first draft.

The people involved in decoding the human genome come from a wide range of professions. They are biologists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and other scientists.

The IHGP is not the only player in this project. A private company, Celera Genomics, based in Rockville, Maryland, has also spent the past decade trying to solve the mysteries of the human genome. The company is headed by scientist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter. He has made no secret of wanting to profit from the discovery, possibly by patenting it and selling the information to pharmaceutical companies.

Only recently has the competition and public animosity between these two died down. This came after gene scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy, who work for IHGP, spurred talks on. After weeks of negotiations, an agreement was reached that the two sides would announce their results on the same day.

It is widely thought that the two sides really came together because of the enormous implications of this discovery. Essentially, neither side wanted the other to claim ownership of science's crowning achievement.

Like putting a man on the moon

The achievement is being compared to the discovery of penicillin or putting a man on the moon, because scientists now have blueprints to a human being's biological functions and susceptibility to illnesses.

U.S. President Bill Clinton likened the breakthrough to Galileo's celestial searchings and the mapping of the American West by explorers Lewis and Clark.

"There is a very long list of things that we can now do," says Dr. Collins. "All of it will greatly benefit medicine."

Scientists believe that medicine will eventually be able to identify from birth the diseases that a person may develop - and to provide treatment to extend life and health beyond what was possible before.

Researchers will now turn their attention toward identifying the proteins made by the genes. This research will determine the function of about a million proteins in the body and then devise therapeutic drugs. Researchers believe that doctors will be able to tailor treatment to individuals and even correct genetic flaws before birth.

The discovery is expected to revolutionize cancer treatment. Tests could determine whether a person is likely to develop a certain type of cancer at some point in their life. But by unlocking the key to that cancer, researchers will be able to treat it before it develops.

Ethical concerns

Not everyone sees the breakthrough as positive.

Mapping the genetic code not only means you may be able to identify diseases before they happen � it also means you can identify potential imperfections in fetuses. There are fears this could lead to a surge in the number of abortions performed.

An employer or an insurance company, armed with details of your genetic code, may not want to take a risk on you. While insurance companies could save an enormous amount of money, an underclass of genetically imperfect people may be created.

The desire to create designer babies or a perfect race may be enhanced with the belief that all things are possible with the key to the human genetic code in hand.

Genetic discrimination could join race, colour, creed, and sexual orientation as a tool of the intolerant.

Scientists say they're a long way from any practical use of their new information on how people are put together. They point out that the anatomy of the heart was worked out in the middle of the 16th century � but the first heart transplant didn't happen until 1967.


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