The scheme, likely to revolutionise medicine, is the fruit of an unprecedented alliance between the biggest multi-national drug companies and the world's leading centres of academic excellence
The combined resources of a consortium of 10 pharmaceutical firms and five research institutes will be used to find the genetic "signposts" that will enable doctors to diagnose a patient's inherited predispositions to diseases.
The consortium has vowed to publish details of the signposts as and when they are found, to prevent smaller companies from patenting the same discoveries and restricting research. Genset, one company in Paris, said it has already discovered two genetic traits that predispose people to prostate cancer and is offering them for sale at pounds 30m.
It is envisaged that the work will be the first practical spin-off of the multi-billion-pound effort to unravel man's entire genetic blueprint - the human genome project - which is expected to publish its first draft "map" next year.
In the first two years of the research effort, pounds 28m will be spent on identifying 300,000 genetic signposts in human DNA, roughly half of which will be mapped precisely, to diagnose and understand the causes of major illnesses, ranging from asthma and diabetes to cancer and heart disease.
The Wellcome Trust, Britain's biggest medical research charity, is spearheading the initiative in conjunction with four of America's most prestigious genetics centres - the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Stanford Human Genome Center in California and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
The group of 10 drug companies includes Britain's Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham and AstraZeneca, as well as Bayer, Hoechst, Hoffmann-La Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis, Pfizer and Searle.
The aim of the project is to identify the smallest genetic variations that distinguish one person from another, known technically as single nuceleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). There is one SNP in every 1,000 letters in the 3 billion- letter genetic code of humans, resulting in more than one million SNPs that typically distinguish one individual from another.
Scientists believe SNPs are the signposts of disease and determine why some people develop serious illnesses while others do not, despite being exposed to the same environmental risk factors.
Michael Morgan, of the Wellcome Trust, said the SNP map would also identify which drugs would work well with minimum side-effects. "The expectation is that most of the common diseases have a major genetic basis. The question is how do you determine the difference," he said.
Arthur Holden, the head of SNP Consortium Ltd, said all the information gathered to make the SNP map will be published openly and not patented.
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