The human genome project was a grand scientific enterprise, which attracted both hyperbole and ridicule alike. The project was lauded as “the moon shot of the life sciences”, the “holy grail of man”, "the code of codes", and “the book of life”. Such rhetoric has also received scorn. President George Bush senior managed to deflate the pretensions of the project with the accidental slip that it was the “human gnome initiative”.
In The Sequence, Kevin Davies seeks to go beyond such metaphors, and provide a candid and honest account of the race of the human genome project. The author is indebted to the authoritative book The Gene Wars, which considered the early struggles over the human genome project. Robert Cook-Deegan observes that there was initially much debate over whether there should be a Human Genome Project at all:
"The debate became one of ‘big’ science versus ‘small’ science. The reliance on systematic technology development and goal-directed gene-mapping efforts presaged a new style for biology, one that elicited excitement from those attracted to whiz-bang technologies but drew gasps of revulsion from those who aspired to cultivate biology on a more modest scale and with a decentralized organisation. The battle was, among other things, over whose vision would control the budget and which scientific aesthetic would prevail."
Robert Cook-Deegan argued that the Human Genome Project was an attempt by the life sciences to raise its profile, and attract a larger share of funding from the Federal Government, and a greater level of support from private enterprise. He observed: “The human genome project emerged as a unifying force, focusing the full intensity of molecular biology on the development of tools to crack open the diseases that eluded understanding. The tools were maps and methods; the genome project was a political package in which to present them to policy makers and the public”.
Robert Cook-Deegan documented the battles between Nobel Laureate James Watson and the director of the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine Healy, over the Human Genome Project. He ended with the controversy over the efforts of the National Institutes of Health to patent the express sequence tags that were archived by Craig Venter in 1991. This action caused great ructions in the scientific community and led to James Watson resigning from the leadership of the public consortium. In the end, the United States Patent and Trade Mark Office rejected the patent applications over the express sequence tags. It found that the inventions lacked novelty, an inventive step, and utility.
In The Sequence, Kevin Davies picks up the story of Robert Cook-Deegan and considers the period of the human genome project from 1991 to the present. He tells the story of Craig Venter, the scientist known to his enemies and detractors as "Darth Venter". Craig Venter resigned from the National Institutes of Health in the wake of personal criticism of his work - for instance, the Nobel scientist, James Watson, denounced his patents as "monkey work". In 1995, Craig Venter set up a non-profit research centre called The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). It was funded by the biotechnology firm Human Genomics Sciences, which had ownership rights over all the discoveries of the organisation. In 1998, Craig Venter established Celera Geomics with the help of the Parker Elmer Corporation. He announced that his company would use high-powered sequencing machines to map the human genome. The organisation's slogan was: "Speed matters. Discovery can't wait".
- Patent Law,
- the Human Genome Project
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/matthew_rimmer/85/