We can't rely on private firms to exploit the full potential of the genome

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Comparisons with putting a man on the Moon were hard to avoid yesterday as a key stage in the unravelling of human DNA - the Human Genome Project - finally arrived. In truth, as the project is only 90 per cent done, it could be more accurately compared to putting a man in orbit around the Moon, but that's quibbling.

Comparisons with putting a man on the Moon were hard to avoid yesterday as a key stage in the unravelling of human DNA - the Human Genome Project - finally arrived. In truth, as the project is only 90 per cent done, it could be more accurately compared to putting a man in orbit around the Moon, but that's quibbling.

What is easily forgotten is how important a role competition played in both those projects. When John F Kennedy announced America's plan to land on the Moon before 1970, it was in response to the perceived threat of the Soviet expansion into space. And the fact that the genome announcement came yesterday, rather than in 2003, was due principally to the fears of the publicly funded scientists of the international Human Genome Project that the privately funded Celera Genomics, run by Dr Craig Venter, would win the race despite having started later. It took the joint efforts of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to persuade Dr Venter's company to co-operate even a little with the public project by making a joint announcement of the milestone reached yesterday.

The issue of private vs public is a defining question for our time. The Victorian age followed an era in which self-interest ruled, and replaced it with public works, paternalistic deeds and socially minded legislation. But the appetite for paying tax has diminished, and we now see the mutual societies of the 1800s replaced by shareholder-owned banks - indeed, today we learn if Standard Life, Europe's biggest mutual life assurer, has fought off the carpetbaggers. Some economists argue that if you set up the criteria correctly, then individuals seeking profit will always produce better results than collectively funded efforts, be it in prisons, education, pensions or disentangling the three billion base pairs of DNA in a typical human.

That is too glib, of course. But few debates are more contentious than when the desire to make profits collides with the need to treat life-threatening conditions. The key question is whether private industry will develop products that will have the maximum benefit for the most people when compared with a perhaps slower, publicly funded effort. Groups representing people with genetic diseases are in no doubt: many are desperate for drugs companies to seek the genes causing their disease, so that they will produce drugs offering a therapy. It's the perfect mating of self-interest and profit to produce wider benefit. These groups argue that the patenting of genes and associated products provides the right combination of incentive and expertise to deliver the goods.

Yet there are diseases that are very rare or mainly attack Third World populations with less disposable income, for which producing a therapy might not be profitable enough for private companies to pursue. The only answer available now is to stick with conventional, 20th-century treatments. In these instances, publicly financed research to discover gene-based cures will be essential.

For all the stimulus provided by commercial companies, we cannot simply sit back and let private companies run the genetic game. Publicly funded groups, whether through charities (as in the UK) or tax-funded organisations (in the US), still have a vital role to play. After all, if public funding could land a man on the Moon in the last century, surely it can cure some DNA-derived diseases in this one.

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