Online Extra: Craig Venter: Beyond "Bio-Babble"

The gene-decoding whiz explains why the common notion that genetic discoveries lead directly to drug breakthroughs is wrong

J. Craig Venter, chairman of the Institute for Genomic Research, is one of biotech's best-known pioneers. The Rockville (Md.) research organization is working to sequence the genomes of plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria. This is familiar territory for Venter: In 1998, he founded Celera Genomics, with the goal of decoding the human genome. Celera succeeded, and its work helped spark still largely unmet expectations for gene-based medical breakthroughs.\

Venter left Celera, now Applera Corp.-Celera Genomics (CRA ), in 2002 to continue his quest to decode the mysteries of human illnesses. He sees more sophisticated information technology as key to helping biotechnology fulfill its promise. Venter recently spoke with BusinessWeek Correspondent Arlene Weintraub about the future of genomics. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Why did the mapping of the human genome fail to quickly produce a huge torrent of new drugs, as many hoped it would?


Biotech investors bought into the notion -- from early successes at Amgen (AMGN ) and Genentech (DNA ) -- that one gene leads to one protein, and that equals $1 billion. Everyone thought there was a direct linear relationship between the genes and the breakthroughs. It was bio-babble. In reality, the genes are just the tip of the iceberg.

Q: Just how much is still unknown?


There are about 30,000 genes. They encode proteins. We don't have the slightest clue what 42% of them do. For most of the others, we have some clue. Perhaps they look like something we've seen before. But we still don't really fully understand what they do.

Q: What needs to be done to improve the information-technology tools that the industry uses to advance genomic discovery?


We need better bioinformatics tools to be able to predict and model disease pathways. And government and pharmaceutical companies should work together to assemble a database of genes and corresponding diseases. Until we get to that level, we're just shooting in the dark.

I've had discussions with different IT companies, and I'm encouraged. They're thinking about this. They understand that the future of the high-performance computing industry is in genomic medicine.

Q: How do the commercial pressures on biotech and pharma companies affect their ability to translate genomic information into marketable products?


The problem is that these companies see treating chronic disease as good for business. Instead of curing diabetes, for example, they want to treat it.

Q: Are you optimistic that they'll come around?


Maybe it's idealistic, but yes. Clearly, the path from genome to drug has turned out to be far more complicated than anyone imagined. To truly do intelligent drug design we need to understand the tens of thousands of genes and proteins, and how they interact. I believe companies are starting to understand and accept the long time horizon required to get to the breakthroughs.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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