A special report on the human genome in The Economist:
TEN years ago, on June 26th 2000, a race ended. The result was declared a dead heat and both runners won the prize of shaking the hand of America’s then president, Bill Clinton, at the White House. The runners were J. Craig Venter for the private sector and Francis Collins for the public. The race was to sequence the human genome, all 3 billion genetic letters of it, and thus—as headline writers put it—read the book of life.
It quite caught the public imagination at the time. There was the drama of a maverick upstart, in the form of Dr Venter and his newly created firm, Celera, taking on the medical establishment, in the form of Dr Collins’s International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. There was the promise of a cornucopia of new drugs as genetic targets previously unknown to biologists succumbed to pharmacological investigation. There was talk of an era of “personalised medicine” in which treatments would be tailored to an individual’s genetic make-up. There was the frisson of fear that a genetic helotry would be created, doomed by its DNA to second-class health care, education and employment. And there was, in some quarters, a hope that a biotech boom based on genomics might pick up the baton that the internet boom had just dropped, and that lots and lots of money would be made.
And then it all went terribly quiet. The drugs did not appear. Nor did personalised medicine. Neither did the genetic underclass. And the money certainly did not materialise. Biotech firms proved to be just as good at consuming cash as dotcom start-ups, and with as little return. The casual observer, then, might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing a damp squib, and the $3 billion spent on the project to be so much wasted money. But the casual observer would be wrong. As The Economist observed at the time, the race Dr Venter and Dr Collins had been engaged in was a race not to the finish but to the starting line. Moreover, compared with the sprint they had been running in the closing years of the 1990s, the new race marked by that starting line was a marathon.