The Gene Dilemma: French steal lead in DNA research: Private and state funds help project

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The Independent Online
A COLLECTION of paintings sold at Sotheby's, and a series of telethons featuring a piano-playing geneticist, have raised the money that has allowed France to steal a march on the British and Americans in the study of human DNA.

A pounds 5m bequest from an art collector and an annual televisual charity event enabled Jean Dausset, the French Nobel laureate, to assemble a world-beating team at a laboratory in Paris, the Centre d'Etude du Polymorphisme Humain (CEPH).

Last month, they established a world lead by publishing the equivalent of the Michelin guide to the human genome - the entire collection of human genes.

The French researchers produced the first physical map, which will be a vital tool for hundreds of scientists working on a dollars 3bn ( pounds 2.02bn) international human genome project. This aims not only to work out the physical layout of human genes, but which genes do what and how they do it.

The genome is 3 billion 'letters' long, written as a string of genetic material - DNA - arranged within human cells in bundles called chromosomes. What the French produced is a map of all of the 23 chromosomes that make up an individual, a sort of guidebook to the human genome. The French map will provide invaluable signposts that will accelerate the hunt for defective genes, work which should eventually produce the means to diagnose illness earlier and produce drugs to cure the symptoms of human disease.

Before the French announcement, a physical map existed for only 2 per cent of the human genome. The work took 10 years and cost close to dollars 50m ( pounds 33.7m).

The CEPH laboratory, led by Daniel Cohen, was founded in 1983 as a private, non-profit organisation. It has government commitment - a quarter of its board members are representatives of the French government, and 70 per cent of its funding is government money. It is unique in having collated genetic information from 40 international families.

The key to the CEPH approach is its speed. To carry out the laborious process of 'reading' the genome, Professor Cohen set up a sister laboratory called Genethon, just south of Paris, in which he housed banks of robots that work at up to 10 times the speed of trained laboratory technicians.

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