Know then thyself the glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
-- Alexander Pope
In an obscure corner of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), molecular biologist Norton Zinder strode to a 30-ft.-long oval conference table, sat down and rapped his gavel for order. A hush settled over the Human Genome Advisory Committee, an unlikely assemblage of computer experts, biologists, ethicists, industry scientists and engineers. "Today we begin," chairman Zinder declared. "We are initiating an unending study of human biology. Whatever it's going to be, it will be an adventure, a priceless endeavor. And when it's done, someone else will sit down and say, 'It's time to begin.' "
With these words, spoken in January, Zinder formally launched a monumental effort that could rival in scope both the Manhattan Project, which created the A-bomb, and the Apollo moon-landing program -- and may exceed them in importance. The goal: to map the human genome and spell out for the world the entire message hidden in its chemical code.
Genome? The word evokes a blank stare from most Americans, whose taxes will largely support the project's estimated $3 billion cost. Explains biochemist Robert Sinsheimer of the University of California at Santa Barbara: "The human genome is the complete set of instructions for making a human being." Those instructions are tucked into the nucleus of each of the human body's 100 trillion cells* and written in the language of deoxyribonucleic acid, the fabled DNA molecule.
In the 35 years since James Watson and Francis Crick first discerned the complex structure of DNA, scientists have managed to decipher only a tiny fraction of the human genome. But they have high hopes that with new, automated techniques and a huge coordinated effort, the genome project can reach its goal in 15 years.
The achievement of that goal would launch a new era in medicine. James Wyngaarden, director of the NIH, which will oversee the project, predicts that it will make "major contributions to understanding growth, development and human health, and open new avenues for therapy." Full translation of the genetic message would enable medical researchers to identify the causes of thousands of still mysterious inherited disorders, both physical and behavioral.
With this insight, scientists could more accurately predict an individual's vulnerability to such obviously genetic diseases as cystic fibrosis and could eventually develop new drugs to treat or even prevent them. The same would be true for more common disorders like heart disease and cancer, which at the very least have large genetic components. Better knowledge of the genome could speed development of gene therapy -- the actual alteration of instructions in the human genome to eliminate genetic defects.
The NIH and the Food and Drug Administration have already taken a dramatic step toward gene therapy. In January they gave approval to Dr. W. French Anderson and Dr. Steven Rosenberg, both at the NIH, to transplant a bacterial gene into cancer patients. While this gene is intended only to make it easier for doctors to monitor an experimental cancer treatment and will not benefit the patients, its successful implantation should help pave the way for actual gene therapy.