NIH research yields dividends

With the goal of the National Institutes of Health's 15-year project to catalog and map human DNA becoming more of a reality— and potentially commercially profitable— two businesses this summer turned the effort into a race that pits the government against the private sector.

NIH began its ambitious effort to use computers to map human DNA in 1988, when it joined the Energy Department's study of the effects of radiation on survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1990, the two agencies launched the $3 billion Human Genome Project, with plans to complete the project in 2005. In May, Celera Genomics Corp., headed up by former NIH researcher Dr. Craig Venter, announced it would complete the sequencing in three years at one-tenth the cost. Just last month, newly formed Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc. said it would finish the process in 12 to 24 months for about the same money.

The easy— but misguided— conclusion here would be to ask NIH to step aside, save taxpayer money and let the seemingly more cost-efficient private firms complete the coding. After all, didn't Economics 101 teach us that the private sector can accomplish the same goals as government more quickly and cheaply?

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Celera's approach, some argue, will not create as complete a DNA map as NIH's and will yield only short-term benefits. Incyte said it would include only ''commercially relevant information,'' or about 90 percent of all human DNA.

One of the primary functions of government is to conduct basic research that is too costly and not profitable for the private sector to undertake, yet may eventually yield significant societal benefits. Where would these companies be if not for the decade of public investment in the Human Genome Project, a scientific feat possibly greater than the creation of the periodic table of elements?

But government research does have its drawbacks. Venter left NIH in 1992 after he became frustrated by obstacles in funding and patenting a new sequencing technique that made it easier to identify genes. Governmental red tape ultimately can jeopardize a scientific endeavor.

It would be shortsighted to conclude that Congress should cut back on its investment in information technologies to support research in health, the environment or a related area because of a perception that the private sector can simply do it better. NIH's project is important because it is driven by motives other than profits and could yield more useful information later. Despite the highly publicized, private-sector initiatives to map genetic code, the Human Genome project and others like it remain a good investment.

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