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Researchers Complete Sequencing of Human Genome

Aired June 26, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: As the director of the National Institutes of Health put it this morning, "We are issuing the first draft in the book of life." International public and private efforts to unlock the human genetic code are complete, an achievement being compared to man's walk on the moon.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Modern science has confirmed what we first learned from ancient fates. The most important fact of life on this Earth is our common humanity. My greatest wish on this day for the ages is that this incandescent truth will always guide our actions as we continue to march forth in this, the greatest age of discovery ever known.


WATERS: Simply put, the announcement today means science, engineering and technology have figured out what we're made of.


BOB STRAUSBERG, NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE: This gives us the pieces of the puzzle, and having those pieces of the puzzle then allows us, in fact, to come up with much better ways of not only assembling that puzzle but understanding if that -- if we need to in fact make changes in that puzzle.


WATERS: In the future, we'll know whether we're vulnerable to certain diseases. Doctors will know what puzzle pieces need changing and whether prescribed treatment is changing them.

We all have bugs in our genetic code, and misuse of this new technology could create as many problems as it solves. The president cautioned this discovery must be used to segregate, discriminate or invade the privacy of human beings.

This first draft in the book of life, a revolution in medical science, will allow us to "read our own instruction book," as the head of genome project put it. Much of our coverage today here on CNN will help you understand what to look for in that book. NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Genome sequencing is very complicated and very controversial as well. CNN medical Eileen O'Connor looks at the nuts and bolts of this project.


EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Clinton called the working drafts of deciphered human DNA a revolutionary step for science and medicine.

CLINTON: With this profound new knowledge, human kind is on the verge of gaining immense new power to heal. Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives.

O'CONNOR: It took 10 years for the international consortium of scientists from Britain, the United States, France, Germany, and Japan to decode the chemical pairings of the DNA found in the cell of anonymous donors. Another working draft, also 90 percent complete, was finished by a private company, PE Celera, which began its work last year using a different method.

The much-touted race between Francis Collins, who headed the U.S. venture, and Craig Venter, in charge of the private project, ended with collaboration and joint praise in the White House ceremony.

CRAIG VENTER, CELERA GENOMICS: I'd like to acknowledge and congratulate Francis Collins and our colleagues in the public genome effort in the U.S., Europe and Asia for their tremendous effort in generating a working draft of the human genome.

O'CONNOR: What the scientists have done is identify the over 3 billion letters of the genetic code, the pairings of four chemicals that make up our genes. It is those genes that tell ourselves what to be and how to work. Scientists hope by now studying this genetic blueprint they will be able to identify even more genes that can lead to disease, enabling researchers to develop therapies and treatments that will help prevent or cure some inherited illnesses.

FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, HUMAN GENOME PROJECT: I'd be willing to make a prediction that within 10 years we will have the potential of offering any of you the opportunity to find out what particular genetic conditions you may be at increased risk for.

O'CONNOR: While the government-funded project's database is open to all on the Internet, Celera's is currently available to paying subscribers. President Clinton called on all scientists involved to continue working together and find ways to maximize the benefits of this new discovery while eliminating its misuse against individuals.

CLINTON: We must guarantee that genetic information cannot be used to stigmatize or discriminate against any individual or group.


O'CONNOR: Scientists caution it will take years to determine whether each gene lies along these chemical pairings amidst this deciphered DNA. But they say by reading our so-called "owner's manual" they will be able to help each individual live longer, healthier lives.

I'm Eileen O'Connor, reporting live from the White House.

ALLEN: And Eileen, what are the other diseases -- just list them -- that we might see profound changes in, in the future with this work?

O'CONNOR: Well, you're already seeing profound changes in certain kinds of cancer, colon cancer, and also in some kind of blood diseases, like hemophilia.

And what they are also hoping is that just for your average disease they'll be able to pinpoint drugs that work specifically for you, Natalie: the antibiotic that is the most targeted for your kind of flu, for instance. By decoding the genetic code of your flu virus, they'll be able to give you an antibiotic that won't have any side effects and that will more quickly work against that disease.

Also supervitamins, they'll be able to tailor those specifically to you and your genetic makeup -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Eileen O'Connor in Washington. Francis Collins today also said that 2,000 people die every day of cancer. With this work, possibly that number one day will be reduced to zero.

Well, the information we get from our genes is expected to create a whole new way of thinking about our health, as we've been telling you. But is there such thing a thing as too much information?

We have two reports now on what sequencing the genome could mean to you. We begin with CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Marina Ripley-Hager (ph) is about to receive the news of a lifetime. Her mother and sister both died young of breast cancer. Now a genetic counselor at the Emory University School of Medicine is about to tell Marina if she carries one of the genetic mutations linked to breast cancer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The results show that we did not find a mutation in the RCA-1 or BRCA-2.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God. Oh, that is so good. That is incredible. I so expected that it was going to go the other way. None detected, none detected.

COHEN (on camera): Geneticists say that because of what they've learned from the Human Genome Project, this kind of genetic testing could become routine for everyone in about a decade. Your doctor would be able to tell you if you're at a higher than normal risk for a whole host of diseases, everything from cancer to diabetes to heart disease. ALAN GUTTMACHER, HUMAN GENOME PROJECT: You will be able to walk into your doctor's office, and your doctor will be able to do a fairly simple and inexpensive test to tell you not exactly what your future is going to be, certainly, but tell you what your individual genetic predisposition is in terms of both health and disease.

COHEN (voice-over): And then you could put that knowledge to work.

COLLINS: If I knew I was at risk for colon cancer or heart disease, there are things you can do about that. And this leads you then toward an individualized plan of preventative medicine, focusing on keeping people healthy instead of trying to treat them when they're already quite advanced in an illness.

COHEN: Of course, testing isn't perfect. For example, just because you tested negative, Marina Ripley-Hager still could get breast cancer. She just doesn't have a higher than normal risk.

Some people might not want to know if they're susceptible to certain illnesses. For example if you have a higher than normal chance of getting Alzheimer's disease, there's nothing you can do about it. But there are medications Marina could have taken if she tested positive. So for her it was worth looking into that genetic crystal ball: a whole new way of looking at medicine and ourselves.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Atlanta.



JONATHAN AIKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As helpful as this science might be, the dangers, some fear, is it could just as easily be used to hurt people.

LARRY GOSTIN, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Think about it. In our society today so based upon health insurance that the one thing that you may need health insurance for may be what you don't get because you have a pre-existing condition for it.

AIKEN: Terri Seargent lost her job at a North Carolina insurance company last year, one month, she says, after a glowing review, and three months after starting $3,800-a-month treatment for a disease affecting her lungs and liver. It's the same disease that killed her brother a few years before.

TERRI SEARGENT: When I lost my job, I lost all my life insurance and disability insurance. The only way I will ever get them back is if I get a job in a company large enough where health questions are not asked on insurance forms.

AIKEN: Sergeant filed a complaint. Her case is the first to determine if someone with a genetic predisposition to disease is protected by federal discrimination laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a policy directive in 1995 that genetic discrimination was covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Every individual, though, is genetically flawed and predisposed to disease in some way. The issue is, Can you be fired because of it?

PAUL STEVEN MILLER, COMMISSIONER, EEOC: It is illegal for an employer to make job decisions based upon one's genetic predisposition to disease.

AIKEN: Back in February, President Clinton banned genetic discrimination in the federal workplace, and through a patchwork of legislation, 35 states now prohibit genetic discrimination by health insurers.

(on camera): This very private issue may require a very public answer as Congress grapples with the prospect that a person can be discriminated against not only because of the person that they are now but because of who they may become later.

Jonathan Aiken for CNN, Capitol Hill.




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