Who will profit now DNA genie is out of the bottle?

Now the human genome project is complete, it may speed up new cures.
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The Independent Online

Now the champagne and cheering have subsided, the huge significance of the human genome project is finally dawning. With the whole of man's genetic code unravelled, the time has come to start making some real money out of it. Or, as Jonas Allsenas, a biotechnology analyst at ING Barings puts it: "We've got our treasure map, and there are about 100,000 'Xs' marking the spot."

Now the champagne and cheering have subsided, the huge significance of the human genome project is finally dawning. With the whole of man's genetic code unravelled, the time has come to start making some real money out of it. Or, as Jonas Allsenas, a biotechnology analyst at ING Barings puts it: "We've got our treasure map, and there are about 100,000 'Xs' marking the spot."

But the job of digging for the gold won't be easy, as, despite appearances, it is not something the biotech companies themselves have yet spent much time thinking about.

First, many of the 1,500 "companies" are little more than a collection of lab-coated PhDs, a deep bucket of funding and an annual report. Set up in a similar way to many internet dot coms, they've so far managed to get away with selling the market dreams - rather than revenue streams.

Secondly, until earlier this year, the only important industry target was getting the whole human genome dissected, catalogued and ready for use in the fight against disease.

When scientists started picking the genetic code apart in the early 1980s, the first discoveries looked impressive. Every so often, a gene would be found that played a critical role in a medical disorder, such as diabetes or asthma, promising a new route to a cure. The companies doing the mining touted themselves as the future of medicine. Then, with increasingly powerful computers, the rate of discovery soared from 200 genes a year to about 18,000. By the start of the 1990s a new truth emerged: individual genes could only ever be useful in the context of knowing the lot.

As Professor Raj Parekh, chief scientific officer of Oxford Glycosciences explains: "Before the human genome was mapped, it was like trying to translate a foreign language with only half the letters. Now we have them all, we can get on with the business of working out what the script tells us about diseases."

And so the biotech firms' race to complete the genome project began, with all the runners furiously patenting their findings. Now it is over, investors are demanding to know whether their optimism will be rewarded. The biotechs' response has been slow, but the money-making schemes are just starting to appear.

Among the first to stick its head above the parapet is Incyte Genomics. The US-based company realised early on that the key lay in gene discovery, and built an impressive stack of supercomputers to do it. Its efforts have made Incyte the world's largest commercial holder of gene patents - it has 356 - followed by SmithKline Beecham with 197.

Incyte's plan is to put its fully catalogued genes on the internet, and then charge pharmaceutical firms to use them as a massive shortcut in their drug development programmes. The group hopes it will make its cash the same way Dolby did with stereo - by selling its knowledge to all comers rather than exploiting it itself.

Randy Scott, Incyte's president and chief scientific officer, believes his strategy marks a transitional period for the whole industry: "Previously, because of the high cost of finding the genes, only the really big players could get on with using them, and the period between discovery and working on disease treatments was long. Now we are making our database available to everyone, the pace of development will really speed up."

The effects could be even more far-reaching. If most other patent-holders follow suit, and the useful genes are made available for general use, the industry will enter a new phase. Professor Parekh believes much of the bio-tech work done to date will be written off as "pre-competitive". The real competition will come as developers race to drag the best cures out of the same gene. And all the scientists who have been focusing on discovery can now move to applications.

Mr Scott says it is in an environment of intense rivalry that the industry will start to blossom. The use of better, cheaper information could shave years off the generation of new drugs. Many of the smaller companies will probably end up disbanded or merged into one another, however, the overall impetus will be healthy.

But biotech analysts say the move by Incyte may signal another transition. The market popularity of all things genomic has caused some to forget the importance of the big drugs companies. With all the biotech research now in their hands, the pharmaceuticals are more likely to emerge as the eventual victors of the human genome project.

The general public was impressed to learn that the human genome had been mapped, but what it really craves is the first treatment for which genetic research is directly responsible. The likes of Incyte and its peers will continue to churn out the information, and many will do very well financially out of the licensing.

However, the moment one of the big drugs firms produces a bottle of gene-discovered medicine, many will assume the genomic pot of gold belongs to them.

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