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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Genome

Aired January 1, 2000 - 12:14 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: At the dawn of the 21st century, man has mapped much of the world around him, and is now focusing some of his most exciting exploration inward. Medical trailblazers are taking on a huge challenge. They are mapping human DNA to discover what makes us who we are.

As CNN medical correspondent Eileen O'Connor explains, unlocking these mysteries could open a Pandora's box.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Francis Collins is a government scientist. Craig Venter used to be a government scientist. They prefer different modes of transport, both recreationally and scientifically, but both are racing towards the same goal: mapping the very stuff that makes each of us unique -- our DNA.

Collins see the mapping of the human genome, as it is called, as an end in itself.

DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, DIR., HUMAN GENOME PROJECT, NAT'L. INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: This is in fact our most significant adventure in science as a species, reading our own blueprint.

O'CONNOR: Venter as merely a beginning.

CRAIG VENTER, CELERA GENOMICS: People talk about this being a race all of the time. This is a race to the starting line. You have heard Francis Collins and the others say this is the most important thing that science has ever done, more important than going to the moon. I don't agree with that. I think it is important, but what will really determine its importance is what all of us do with this information.

O'CONNOR: It is information detailing every aspect of our very existence, and each of us has a unique and total accounting. Inside every cell in your body is a nucleus that contains a complete set DNA twisted within 46 chromosomes. Unravel those and you get a long, double-stranded thread. That's the DNA. Within that are some 80,000 genes that tell each cell which proteins to make. It is those proteins that determine what a cell will be, what it will do and how well it will do it. In other words, those bits of DNA called genes direct our cells. They determine whether our eyes are blue, our hair is brown, or our skin is black. Those same genes also determine whether our cells will function normally or not -- whether we will get sick. For instance, there is a gene that determines how well the body processes cholesterol, and therefore how likely you may be to suffer from blocked arteries. Scientist believe they have found genes in animals that control appetite and hunger signals to the brain. That gene clearly plays a role in how much people tend to eat and how fat they may get. It is the DNA in the gene that will determine if a person's brain cells will malfunction, creating the conditions for a disease like Alzheimer's.

Four chemicals make up the DNA in our genes that tell the cell what to do. Scientist have assigned them four letters: A is for adenine, T for thyamine, G for guanine, and C for cytosine. A always pairs with T, and G always pairs with C to form that double strand of DNA. How those letters are sequenced or ordered determines each person's unique DNA, the letters of our own book of life.

COLLINS: To the biologist this is it. This is the book of life. This is where all the secrets are going to be found if we can figure out how to read that code.

O'CONNOR: But merely reading the code is no easy task. There are three billion of these lettered pairings in the human genome -- not all of these pairings make up genes. To map the human genome, government labs are taking DNA from an anonymous donor and looking at it line by line, letter by letter.

COLLINS: To read it you have to do a chemical reaction.

O'CONNOR: That chemical reaction forces the four chemicals that make up the DNA chain, A, C, T and G, to identify themselves through color.

To do this, Collins' team cuts the DNA into tiny fragments, then clones or copies them -- which is what is happening on these plates here. Only after that are the copied DNA snippets treated with special chemicals and gels. Each chemical letter of the genetic code reacts differently to the chemicals that have added. The reaction creates different colored beacons on all of the snippets, that are then fed into the computer and read.

COLLINS: We have to load it onto the sequencing machine -- which are gadgets like those over there and others in this building -- that actually then produce the data, which is a series of colored fluorescent signals coming off the bottom of a gel.

VENTER: The green is A, the blue is C, the red is T, and the yellow is G. So I bet you could even read that genetic code now, so there's...

O'CONNOR (on camera): Yes, so, what was green?

(voice-over): Craig Venter is using a similar method, but he is mapping the DNA of five donors at once, instead of just one person's piece by piece as Collins is doing. He believes his method is faster and will yield better information for doctors through comparing the DNA of each donor.

VENTER: So you can see each one of those little, tiny colored bars is one of letters of genetic code. So this is the human DNA from one of our genetic donors here.

O'CONNOR (on camera): Can it be just one of those little letters that can cause a disease?

VENTER: Just one of those differences -- see that green A, there. If that ended up being blue peak of a C, that could be contributing to the cause of a disease. Or the difference between having dark hair versus having no hair.

O'CONNOR (voice-over): Funded by private companies, Venter vows to finish the human genome by next summer.

VENTER: With all these robots, we can pick over 12,000 clones an hour. And each of those spots has one piece of the human genome in it.

O'CONNOR (on camera): Oh, my God, this is incredible. There -- how many computers are here?

VENTER: If you just look down here at the hundreds of machines working, each one generating thousands of letters of genetic code automatically every hour around the clock...

O'CONNOR: Yes.

VENTER: ... you can see why we have been able to get over 80 percent of the human genetic code, starting in September 8th.

O'CONNOR (voice-over): Three hundred machines costing some $300,000 apiece -- that's 90 million dollars. Add it to this supercomputer, the biggest in private hands, makes this a costly venture.

VENTER: This computer facility would enough to run any country in the world.

O'CONNOR: Still, Venter says they are spending far less than the $3 billion the government has budgeted.

COLLINS: We have found ourselves in a circumstance of being able to say, it is doable, it is doable faster than you thought, and it is costing less than you thought it would.

O'CONNOR: Francis Collins likes to brag -- even to scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who are part of his team -- that the government project is also under budget, and will now bring in a working draft this spring, well before their earlier deadline of 2005. That means the government's new projected completion is the same as Venter's. Yet Collins denies that Venter's entry into what neither likes to call a race has moved up the target date.

VENTER: Help me with the whole problem of patenting genomic sequences.

O'CONNOR: But Collins does tell doctors at Baylor that Venter's practice of filing preliminary patent applications on some 6,500 DNA sequences so far has spurred him on. Doctors are concerned about this issue, of who owns the right to the information in each decoded sequence. Their worry is that protracted legal battles will slow down the research necessary to achieve medical therapies.

COLLINS: A lot of really interesting experiments are not going to be one gene at time -- they are going to look at the whole genome. And if we start putting up barriers to that, we are going to slow down the process. So hence our motivation for taking the stance we have, and for hurrying up, trying to get it all out there in the public domain.

O'CONNOR: The government is trying to make this information public domain by posting it immediately on its Web site, updating every 24 hours as the sequences come off the machines.

These kinds of patent applications have become increasingly common. The U.S. Patent Office says ultimately it will be up to the courts to decide whether anyone other than mankind can own a piece of the human genome.

TODD DICKINSON, U.S. PATENT OFFICE: The court system will find that medium for us, and I think system itself will find that medium for us. I think our position is that genes and ESTs are patentable so long as they meet the legal requirements which have been laid down.

O'CONNOR: Venter's company, called Celera, has its own Web site open to paying subscribers, mostly pharmaceutical companies for now.

While Venter is protective of trade secrets, meeting at times behind closed doors, he says patents aren't about protecting secrecy, that they are the only way to protect and provide the motivation for pharmaceutical company partners to spend the millions needed for further research in developing drugs from this knowledge.

VENTER: Patents are the means that give the pharmaceutical industry a reasonable period of protection to invest the billions of dollars they have to to develop new drugs.

O'CONNOR: Bill Haseltine is also a firm believer in patents. He is using them to generate investment money in his company, Human Genome Sciences. Haseltine is already developing drugs based on some of the genes from the human genome. Drugs like VegF2 (ph), which can grow new blood vessels in heart patients, alleviating closed arteries. And a kind of second skin, a plaster applied to an open wound to accelerate the healing process.

But unlike Venter, he does not believe mapping the entire human genome is all that useful.

BILL HASELTINE, HUMAN GENOME SCIENCES, INC.: What the Human Genome Project will uncover is 90 percent, 97 percent, junk DNA. And the parts of the genes they will find are genes we have already found. O'CONNOR: Instead of decoding all the DNA, Haseltine has been looking at just the genes and how they function. That's only about 5 percent of the total DNA. By doing that, he says he is moving more quickly towards these kinds of drugs that harness the healing power of certain genes.

He says mapping the entire genome is nice, but should not be the first priority.

HASELTINE: It is a good scientific infrastructure project, but it is not immediately applicable to medicine.

O'CONNOR: Both Collins and Venter see it much differently.

COLLINS: The part in between the genes, much of it will be involved in regulation, and telling a gene whether it is supposed to be on or off in your liver or your blood cell. So we really need to understood the parts that aren't in the genes themselves if we want to understand risks of disease and how to manage them.

O'CONNOR: Venter says by being able to compare our differences throughout the entire genetic code, doctors will be able to develop individualized drugs to treat disease.

VENTER: So the pharmacy in the future will base the drugs that you get based on your genetic code, so you don't get ones that could be toxic to you. Right now that's done totally randomly. We don't know who it is going to work on and who it wouldn't. That's the biggest thing that's going to change in future.

O'CONNOR: Doctors will also be able to predict what disease -- like heart disease and certain kinds of cancer -- a person may develop later in life, which could be used to help patients prevent those illnesses. Trouble is, it could also be used against individuals, as a reason to deny someone employment or health insurance.

VENTER: I feel very strongly that you're the only one that should own your genetic code. We want that to empower individuals, not empower companies or governments.

O'CONNOR: Collins preaches much the same thing. He too thinks, before this genie is let out of the bottle, Congress must act and pass privacy laws.

COLLINS: This vision of gene-based medicine can only come to pass if the public becomes confident that finding out genetic information is a safe activity for them.

O'CONNOR: That isn't Francis Collins only concern, for it is clear that reading nature's genetic blueprint will allow man to alter nature's intended plans.

COLLINS: Genetics is enormously powerful to give hope to people who currently don't have that hope, because we don't understand their diseases and we don't what to do for them. And ultimately, that's all of us. But it also is possible for this kind of knowledge to be used in ways that we would all recoil from. And collectively, I think, as a society, we are responsible for trying to make sure that that doesn't happen.

O'CONNOR: Venter again agrees: The time is now, he says. to set up the parameters -- before the power behind this knowledge is unleashed.

VENTER: It is not the knowledge, it is not the technology, the tools, the computers. It is what we believe, as a society, is moral, and what we are going to do with this information. So it's -- this is the time to have the discussions.

O'CONNOR: Eileen O'Connor, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: That's amazing stuff.

And our look at this remarkable research, poised to change all of our lives, continues with Dr. Craig Venter.

KAGAN: We will ask him what he is learning about us, and how he plans to use that information, when we come back.

ANNOUNCER: The discovery of DNA was made by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: We want to spend some time now with three men who are intimately involved in mapping the human genome, an ambitious project that may profoundly affect our daily lives, our entire lives some day.

ALLEN: We will be joined in a few moments by two scientists at the forefront of this cutting-edge project on the public side.

But first, we will talk with Craig Venter, who heads up the private mapping venture. Dr. Venter may hold the key to the medicine of the future as president of Celera Genomics, and he joins us from Washington.

Thank you for joining us on this new year, and happy new year to you.

CRAIG VENTER, PRESIDENT, CELERA GENOMICS: You're welcome. Happy new year.

ALLEN: You have said that you disagree with some folks about this being as huge as man going to the moon. But Dr. Venter, does it have the potential for being that big depending on what it leads to?

VENTER: It has the potential, but that potential is going to take most of this next century that we've just entered to realize. This information is so vast, human physiology is so complex with our hundred trillion cells and our 80,000 genes. And almost an infinite variety that this time -- at the beginning of the next century, scientists will still be making major discoveries from the genetic code that is being determined over just this few year period of time.

ALLEN: If we can project into the future, though, and -- realistic hopes that you have? Or when you really dream about where this could lead to, are we talking about cures for major diseases -- possible cures for cancer, say?

VENTER: Well, the principal effect we're going to have is understanding each of our own individuality at a whole new level, and our own responses to the environment that led us to be who we are as individuals.

But understanding this same information we hope will lead to major new treatments for disease. But I think even more important will be the preventions of diseases going forward by understanding what leads to cancer, what leads to heart disease at the genetic level inside the cells.

So, I'm hoping the future will be much more disease-free not because we've cured disease, but we've learned how to prevent it.

MANN: Doctor, Jonathan Mann here.

I was struck by the picture of you showing Eileen O'Connor (ph) around that enormous computer room, and about the work all those computers are doing. If you had to compare it to something, is it like mapping a country, mapping the planet, mapping the universe? Just how big a job is this?

VENTER: Well, in terms of the actual letters, you know, we have six billion people on this planet now. That's the same number of letters of genetic code each of us have in each of our hundred trillion cells. So imagine trying to count every person on this planet, and do that in a precise order, and understand all those differences. So it's -- it is a huge technical project.

And it's taking the effort, not only of Celera Genomics, but we're using the data from the public labs, from the research efforts that's gone on for the past 100 years in this field. So scientists working together around the world are required to get the complete understanding of this information.

ALLEN: So, Doctor, let's say you map out my genetic code. I have a blueprint. What does this mean to me? What will I know about my future, perhaps, that I don't know now?

VENTER: Well, every day you'll learn something more. That's why this information being available over the Internet, and enabling people to understand their own genetic code, is part of what we're trying to do.

Right now the chromosomes you got from your mother and the ones you got from your father differ from each other in about three million letters of genetic code out of the three billion. But probably only about 10,000 of those letters are actually responsible for you being different from your parents.

Some of those letters are going to be associated with the way you interacted with the environment to form your personality, your intelligence. But others can determine your propensity for wellness, your ability to avoid different infectious agents or to be more susceptible to them. Maybe in there is the -- you know. there's genes associated with wellness. Not in a deterministic fashion, but in an environmental interactive fashion.

I think one of the things we learned when we tried to find the minimal genes required for life is that life is contact sensitive. So you can't just look at the genetic code, you have to look at the environment that we're in. And the two things go together to form any life.

ALLEN: All right, Dr. Venter, we'll continue our discussion.

How do we keep this information that we're going to be learning about ourselves in the right hands and make sure it's only used for good?

MANN: Who should know and own the blueprint of your body? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ALLEN; Well, during the commercial break we're talking with Dr. Venter about the genome project. Jonathan and I were wondering if our blueprints, Doctor, are going to be interesting reading? And will you carry it around with you like you carry your driver's license, your Social Security cards, your little blueprint too -- one day?

VENTER: It's a great question. If you could read one letter of your genetic code a second, it would take until the start of the next century to read all of your own genetic code. It's a huge amount of information. And I think that's one of the most important parts of this project.

That's why Celera has indicated it would give the sequence away to the public for free, because it's the interpretation of this information, it's the management, it's making it available over the Internet that becomes the real challenge going forward.

ALLEN: I think the big question that has been surrounding all of this as well too is, will I be the only person to have access to my genetic code, to my blueprint?

VENTER: Well, it depends on who is doing it. I certainly hope that's the case. I think it would be wrong to form government databases of the genetic code of all the citizens of any country. This information is very personal, it's very private. It says a lot about your own life. And my view is you are the only one that should have access to that. So you could make it available working with your physician to work out how to deal with the pharmacy of the future -- the physicians of the future. MANN: Doctor, let me ask you more about that. From what you're telling us, it sounds like it is possible that we're all going to know about our futures, about the diseases we're destined to get, long before we get them. And perhaps, even longer before anyone can cure them. We're going to know we're going to get sick and no one will be able to help us.

VENTER: Well, we're going to know there is an increased chance of that. But that's the exciting part about the future in terms of learning how to prevent those diseases as we go forward.

An excellent example right now is colon cancer. The advice we get as we reach age 50 is to go in and have colonoscopies to see if there's any signs of colon cancer. It's sort of a random effort until symptoms show up. By looking at the genetic code and certain genes linked to colon cancer from work done by Vert Vogelstein (ph) at Johns Hopkins University, we can have an idea of whether you have an increased chance of getting colon cancer. Then you don't leave it up to chance. You go and check to see if there's any signs, because colon cancer is almost totally treatable if it's caught early enough.

That gives you the power of your own life instead of leaving it up to randomness.

ALLEN: This is all so new to so many people that are watching today, Dr. Venter, and I know you're involved in your work. The government is also doing similar research, and we've learned in Eileen O'Connor's piece that no one likes to call this a race. But isn't a race? And what is the significance if -- who finishes firs in this?

VENTER: Well, in fact, it's a race against ignorance. In fact, we're combining all the data with the now, the speed up and the public effort. We think that's terrific. They've gotten all their equipment from our company, the PE Corporation. They're buying their regents to do the job. So PE Biosystems and Solara and making the Genome Project possible. We're incorporating all the data, not just the data we're generating, but from the public labs as well. And that's what's moved it up even faster.

You know, our initial goal was the end of 2001, which is over five years ahead of what the government plan was. Now with the combined effort, we're likely to have the human genetic code completely decoded sometime in this coming year.

ALLEN: And quickly, what does that mean? Does that mean you own the information? You can have a patent? It's you and the drug companies from thereon in the research? How does that work?

VENTER: Nobody will own the information. In fact, that's what we've made clear. We thought from the very beginning of this project, is that once Solara finished sequencing the genetic code, we're going to make it available to scientists everywhere throughout the world for free, over the Internet. It's not the letters of the genetic code. It's the complex interpretation. That's why we have the world's largest civilian supercomputer, and we could use 10 times the computing power right now to try and interpret this vast information. What happens with the -- quote -- ownership, the patent issue, which is not ownership, it gives the pharmaceutical industry a license to use the information to develop new therapeutics. Otherwise, they won't invest the money to develop the new treatments for disease all of us want. If that was not a necessary requirement, there would be no need whatsoever for patenting anything. The Bill headnotes teams of the world would not develop a new drug if they didn't have a period of exclusivity to cover up for the half-billionth of billion-dollar investment per drug.

So it's not ownership; it's enablement, enabling the biotech and the pharmaceutical industries to come up with new treatments for disease that will help all of us.

ALLEN: And we're going to be talking with the man you mentioned Bill Heipoteen (ph), in our next hour.

MANN: We sure will.

Dr. Craig Venter, thanks very much for talking with us now. Also in this race, and as you've been hearing, an international group of scientists funded by the government.

ALLEN: When we return, we'll talk to two of these researchers of the Human Genome Project and find out what their learning and what medical breakthroughs they expect in this new millennium.

ANNOUNCER: DNA sequences discovered by the Human Genome Project are released to a public database.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ALLEN: We've been talking about the private free enterprise side of the gene-mapping project. Now we want to turn to the public side.

With us from St. Louis is Rick Wilson, co-director of the Genome Sequencing Center at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Welcome. Happy New Year.

RICK WILSON, CO-DIRECTOR, GENOME SEQUENCING CENTER: Thanks. Same to you.

ALLEN: Thank you.

And from London, Michael Morgan. He is chief executive of the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus.

And thank you, Dr. Morgan, for being with us.

MICHAEL MORGAN, WELLCOME TRUST GENOME CAMPUS: Thank you.

ALLEN: I want to start with you, Dr. Wilson. And about these two separate project, Dr. Venter and now this one, does it matter to the average person, say you know, my sick brother-in-law? Does it matter to him who finishes first here? WILSON: Well, I guess the key thing is, is that it will move things forward quite a bit, in terms of when we have the basic sequence completed, and once that's in hand, it really empowers people all around the world, in terms of the guys doing research into various genetic diseases to come up with the answers that basically lead to treatments.

ALLEN: And, Doctor -- oh, go ahead.

WILSON: I'm sorry. I was just going to say that the only thing that we have to wait and see is whether or not the patent situation really does affect who can get a hold of important information, which does lead to discovery.

ALLEN: Dr. Morgan, how do you feel about that part of this story, and the legal consequences and where this information goes from here?

MORGAN: Well, could I first of all say, because I think it would be of some interest to your international viewers, that this is an international program. Forty percent of the sequencing work that is going on is outside of continental North America, and it's a consortium of countries -- Britain, America, France, Germany, Japan and China -- that are supporting the public program. And all of those countries, and the funding agencies, the government-funded agencies of Wellcome Trust, took a position about four or five years ago that the way to drive this program forward was to ensure that all of the information would be made freely available so that anybody, be they in a public laboratory, be they in a university, be they in a pharmaceutical company, could use the data.

And as Craig Venter has just said, Solara Genomics are benefiting from this gift by incorporating the Human Genome Project sequencing into their own product.

So the Wellcome Trust, as a charity supporting medical research, clearly believes that this information is of such fundamental importance for human medicine in the future that is must be available freely, without hindrance, without the complications of patents, so that researchers around the world can work on it and produces the benefits for mankind.

ALLEN: Are you confident that's how it's going to end up?

MORGAN: I'm an optimist by nature. The Wellcome Trust has stated quite clearly, that if we find a patent situation which is impeding medical research, then we will challenge it in the courts, and at the end of the day, of course, it's going to be a battle in the courtroom, which will give a lot of money to lawyers, which will actually sort this thing out.

MANN: This is Jonathan Mann. I wonder if we could go to St. Louis and Dr. Wilson once again.

I wanted to ask you a question not of interest to lawyers, but to the rest of us. Some of us like to smoke too much -- that's bad for you -- some of us like to drink too much -- that's bad for you -- or eat too much. When we look at the practical application, we were just hearing from Dr. Venter, that it's a far way off. But even a far way off, is it possible that instead of changing our bad habits, doctors like you, scientists like you, are going to be able to change our bad genes and let us go on>

WILSON: Well, I think the first thing along the lines of some of the devices that you mentioned, Jonathan, basically will be an understanding very early on of susceptibility to certain conditions that if you drink too much or you smoke too much, may provide serious consequences to you later in life.

So I think very soon, probably in the next 20 to 50 years, you'll be able to have an understanding when you're a very young person that you're at risk, say for lung cancer, and if your physician tells you that, I think that's something that you'll want to take into account when you go to buy a pack of cigarettes.

ALLEN: Dr. Morgan, genetic research has been going on for quite some time. Have there been a major breakthrough? Has there been any disease cured? And do you see that in the distant future, perhaps in our lifetimes?

MORGAN: What is clear, that the number of diseases involving genes, for example phallysemia (ph), there've been enormous improvements, a, in diagnosis, and therefore, potentially prevention; and secondly, in a fundamental understanding of the disease process, which hopefully in the longer term will lead to the discovery of new drugs.

One of the things I think that both Francis Collins and Craig Venter got absolutely right earlier in this program was the danger of assuming that once the genome is finished that that's the end of the story, and cures will come along very, very rapidly. In fact, of course, it is very much the beginning, and it's going to take a long time for some of these cures to come. But I have complete belief that at some time in the future they will be there.

ALLEN: And, Dr. Wilson, let's talk about that. Do you know how you go in and fix the problem once you realize that someone may carry a defective gene, say, for a certain type of cancer? Can you get rid of that gene? Do you alter that gene? Do you replace that gene?

WILSON: Well, Natalie, you're talking about what we call gene therapy, and I think that's still quite a ways off. I think as -- excuse me -- all the other participants have mentioned, the first thing that we really understand is how to understand the basic mechanism of a disease -- how to diagnose it early, how to design new treatments.

A lot of whet we've already seen from recombinate DNA technology since the late 1970s has been to use recombinate DNA to produce new products, such as insulin, clotting factor, human growth factor, that we can use to very successfully treat diseases that weren't treatable 20, 30, 40 years ago. That's the first step, really, rather than gene therapy, rather than thinking about do we go in and replace genes that are defective or do we somehow supplement genes that are defective.

MANN: It is fascinating stuff, but there are unknowns.

ALLEN: There are unknowns, and some people at home might be a little wary of what we're talking about, the unknowns. Are there surprises? What are the dangers, perhaps of all of this?

That's coming up next.

ANNOUNCER: The first methods for sequencing DNA were developed in the 1970s. Sequencing of the human genome began in full in 1996.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ALLEN: Well, we're talking about everyone having access to their own internal blueprint. And some people might be wary of knowing, Doctors, what's in their future, what's the potential. And when eyeglasses came out many years ago, people were wary of that. They didn't want to wear eyeglasses and mess with nature, but we all got over that.

What do you think, Dr. Wilson, about those that still might be thinking, I don't like where this is going. I don't want to know about the potential to know my future.

WILSON: Well, I think all new technology is scary for a while. And I think you've seen that as -- eyeglasses was one example. Certainly in the 1970s, when recombinate DNA first came about and we learned that we could splice genes, people were very concerned. And I think, as I already mentioned, it's led to some really valuable advances in medical science.

ALLEN: Do you think we're even going to have a choice in the future about whether we know or not?

WILSON: I think we'll have a choice. I think we certainly have input now. All of the agencies that are funding the human genome project in the public domain are convening boards of experts to look at the ethical, legal and social implications of genetic data and how we ought to safeguard people from any of these sort of bad implications.

ALLEN: Dr. Morgan, what is perhaps the next breakthrough in all of this?

MORGAN: I suppose the next breakthrough is likely to be what some people have called the first real product of the human genome project, which will be a thing called the single nucleotide polymorphism map. Now that sounds very complicated...

ALLEN: Well, I understand that.

MORGAN: ... but this will show us the differences between individuals and enable you to go into your doctor some few years in the future, perhaps, and be diagnosed for exactly the form of hypertension that you have. And then a drug specifically designed for your genetic background will be the one that is prescribed. And it will do you good. It will control your hypertension without doing you any harm. And I think that really will come along very, very soon.

And I think new technology is scary, and I think it's beholden on the scientists and the funding agencies to ensure that we talk as best we can to the public and get them to the understand the potential as well as the risks...

ALLEN: Are there many risks...

MORGAN: ... But I think...

ALLEN: Are there many risks when you're talking about tinkering with genes?

MORGAN: I think the risks will more likely come from the way in which governments deal with the information rather than the science itself. It will be the application rather than the science that might be scary. We only look -- have to look back into the 19th -- into the 20th century that's just closing to see the way in which science has been used in warfare, for example, not to the benefit, therefore, of humanity.

What's important is that governments take care that citizens are protected, that citizens have the right to their genetic information, nobody else has the right to their information, and that we're all able to make best use of it.

One of my concerns is that at the moment one wonders how this is going to impact on the diseases of the Third World rather than the diseases of the rich world.

ALLEN: Dr. Morgan, thank you.

And finally, Dr. Wilson, let's say folks are sitting here centuries, a couple centuries from now talking about this. First of all, will they be about 150 years old? Is this going to help us way down the road live very long? Will everyone be beautiful and perfect? Just have fun with that one.

WILSON: Well, I actually talked to some people who were interested in how this was going to impact on athletes and were we going to be looking at 150 home runs per year in 50 years. I don't know. It's hard to say. I think it will definitely increase the quality of life over the next half century to the next full century. I think we'll learn how to treat diseases. People will live longer, certainly. Whether or not we're going to breed a race of superhumans, I kind of doubt that.

ALLEN: All right, maybe that's best. Who knows?

We thank you so much, both of you, for coming in on this New Year's. Dr. Rick Wilson, Dr. Michael Morgan, good luck to you in your work.

MORGAN: Thank you. WILSON: Thank you.

MANN: It's fascinating stuff. And the conversation isn't over. If you have more questions for Michael Morgan, you can log on to our Web site at cnn.com/chat for an online talk beginning in just a few minutes. In the U.S., that's at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

ALLEN: And stay with CNN this next hour, as we continue our in- depth look at new diseases and emerging cures. That's at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. CNN's Millennium 2000 coverage continues.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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