Project aims to chart human DNA 4 years faster than federal program Rockville nonprofit to join forces with Conn. maker of scientific instruments


A pioneer in genetic sequencing and a private company are joining forces with the aim of deciphering the entire DNA, or genome, of humans within three years, far faster and more cheaply than the federal government is planning.

If successful, the venture would outstrip and to some extent make redundant the government's $3 billion program to sequence the human genome by 2005.

Despite a host of questions, the charting of the full human genome would offer enormous medical and scientific benefits.

The principals have high credibility in the world of genome sequencing. They are Dr. J. Craig Venter, president of the nonprofit Institute for Genomic Sciences in Rockville, and Michael Hunkapiller, president and technical maestro of the Applied Biosystems division of Perkin-Elmer Corp. of Norwalk, Conn.

Hunkapiller's unit is a principal manufacturer of the machines used to sequence DNA, or determine the order of chemical units. The venture will be financed by Perkin-Elmer, a longtime scientific instrument maker that has recently branched into the genome field under the leadership of its chief executive, Tony White.

A plan to form a company for the venture was approved by Perkin-Elmer's board Friday. The project could have wide ramifications for industry, academia and the public because it would make possible almost overnight many developments that had been expected to unfold over the next decade.

The possible possession or control of the entire human genome by a single private company could also become an issue of public concern.

The venture was conceived only a few months ago.

Hunkapiller believed that a new generation of sequencing machines coming on line would be so fast that the whole human genome could be completed far sooner and 10 times more cheaply than envisaged by the National Institutes of Health.

He approached Venter, who had developed the idea for a new sequencing strategy but lacked the means to execute it. The two men concluded in January that it would be possible to sequence the 3 billion letters of human DNA within three years, at a cost of $150 million to $200 million.

The $3 billion federal program, by contrast, is at the halfway point of its 15-year course, and only 3 percent of the genome has been sequenced.

Although the program has had many successes in pioneering a daunting task, serious doubts have emerged as to whether the target date of 2005 for completion can be met.

The human genome contains all the instructions -- some 60,000 or so genes -- needed to design and operate the human organism.

The proposal to substantially complete the human genome in three years would seem hubris coming from almost anyone but Venter. But other experts deemed his approach technically feasible.

"It's not impossible at all that he could succeed," said Dr. William Haseltine, chief executive of Human Genome Sciences of Rockville. "He has demonstrated a fine track record of innovation and organization."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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