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PE Celera Announces Major First Step in Race to Map Human Genome

Aired April 6, 2000 - 1:08 p.m. ET

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

DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: A private company says it's completed a major first step in the race to map the human genetic blueprint. They've roughly sequenced the genome, the thousands of genes found on our 46 chromosomes. But does this information open Pandora's Box or a door to a brave new world?

CNN's medical correspondent Eileen O'Connor puts it in perspective.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): PE Celera says it has finished decoding all the chemicals within the DNA of one human being. The next step is assembling or putting the chemicals into their proper order. Then scientists will have to look at the ordered chemicals and determine which ones are genes. The chemicals of the genes direct our cell's functions, determining if our eyes are blue, our hair is brown, our skin is black, and whether we will have certain diseases. It is that information, says Celera's president, that will lead to new cures.

CRAIG VENTER, PRESIDENT, PE CELEREA: But understanding the individual genetic differences between all of us is going to be very key for you, for me, for all of us in the future for understanding our own risk for different diseases, our propensity to get benefit from drugs.

O'CONNOR: Government-funded labs are also working on a completed map of the genome and question the value of simply identifying the sequences of chemicals within the DNA. They say their process of assembling as they go will produce a more complete genetic blueprint than Celera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the process of getting all of the gaps closed and all of the ambiguous areas fixed is going to be a challenge for any group.

O'CONNOR: Celera's Craig Venter defends his process, saying it will be accurate in identifying all the genes.

VENTER: Now we're going to have the complete spelling, predicted protein structures of every human gene. More than half of those are new, unknown function. It's going to be a real drive for new discoveries.

O'CONNOR: The letters are now there, they say, of the book of life, but it is still no easy task to read it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'CONNOR: Yet, already, just this information has reignited a debate that has moved to Capitol Hill: Who should own the human genome and how should it be used?

I'm Eileen O'Connor, reporting live from Washington.

KELLEY: Eileen, you talked about it's a major first step that this has been accomplished, but how long before we see that they can finish? I understand there are like three steps before they finish mapping this.

O'CONNOR: Well, Celera is predicting that they will assemble the genome within a few weeks. And the government-funded lab say they will have a rough working draft by the end of May. But, again, all these scientists say that they won't have every single tiny bit of genetic information probably for a couple of years -- all the gaps closed.

But they can actually start developing therapies with the information that they will have, Celera says, within a matter of weeks. In fact, some of the -- they've already completed chromosome 22, and some other genes have already been identified from the DNA that they've sequenced thus far, and have already been helping many pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs. Some are even in the beginning phase I, phase II of clinical trials -- Donna.

KELLEY: When they do that, Eileen, and they get them mapped and then they start looking to see -- they put letters on the chemicals and then they look for mutations. It was explained to me a little earlier talking about the ABCs and that the ABCs are kind of out of order now so that they're working on the order.

O'CONNOR: Absolutely. What Celera has done is basically chopped up a book -- the sentences of a book, and they have basically identified, say, the beginning words of a sentence and the end words of a sentence, but they've done it multiple times. Now they're going to feed that into a computer and hopefully they'll be able to come up with the similarities that will put the book together so they could read the story. And they say that's only going to be a few weeks now. But it really is looking at the differences between the DNA of this anonymous donor and some five other donors that Celera is also mapping. They won't map all of those -- the DNA of those donors, but they're going to look at the variations in particular genes once they've identified the genes in this donor.

And they say that, through those variations, they'll be able to determine which gene causes some diseases, and also perhaps how to block the process in that gene that causes the actual disease. And it's that kind of functionality that they're hoping to actually patent to inspire the kind of investment they're going to need to then develop the drugs -- Donna.

KELLEY: OK, Eileen O'Connor, thanks very much.

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