In a low-key yet confident manner, J. Craig Venter addressed a host of issues ranging from proteomics to religion at a July 20 media forum in New York sponsored by Syracuse University.
J. Craig Venter
Often without distinguishing between Celera and PE Corp., Venter said his firm is heavily committed to proteomics, the study of proteins encoded by the genome, and to cancer research. He boasted that the proteomics effort will benefit from new mass spectrometry equipment that should be able to sequence 30,000 protein samples per hour. The first step, he added, will be to sequence sera from patients to find surrogate markers for colon and breast cancer that are as diagnostic as prostate-specific antigen is for prostate cancer.
Another goal, according to Venter, is to develop cancer vaccines "based on the genetic code and the protein structure." But he stressed that his company hasn't yet decided to conduct clinical trials itself, given the one-in-20 odds of success.
Venter said that Celera doesn't plan to sequence the complete genomes of more people to discover single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Noting that the company already has an estimated six million SNPs in its database, he added, "In some cases, we'll be sequencing the same gene from 10,000 individuals" and in other cases "a large number of genes in a smaller set of individuals" to find SNPs and genes linked to complex diseases. Celera is collaborating with City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., to correlate SNPs in an estrogen receptor gene with outcomes of breast cancer therapy.
On government-related matters, Venter said that Celera is seeking patents on only three human genes, though he admitted that the company has filed "a number of" provisional patent applications, "99.99 percent" of which will expire after a year. He also expressed his support for a law barring genetic discrimination, as he did at the White House ceremony in June announcing that the Human Genome Project (HGP) had completed a working draft.
Venter acknowledged that HGP's benefits have sometimes been overstated. "I don't think people ever heard me say the genome project is the most important thing since the discovery of the wheel," he remarked. He later noted: "The genetic code is not going to give us the absolutes that some people in society seem to want. There's going to [have to] be statistics" to indicate increased odds of getting a disease.
Venter, of course, also crowed about the benefits of genome sequencing projects. The sequencing of microbes, he asserted, has provided 100,000 new protein targets for antibiotics and could be critical in identifying biological warfare agents. He suggested that as more genomes are sequenced, they will provide a "detailed map" of evolution. And he predicted that medicine will become "much more individualized" over the next 25 years, thanks to HGP-related discoveries.
Asked whether his work conflicted with religion, Venter responded, "I don't think the fact that we're discovering important things about life that are factually true should necessarily negate anybody's personal religion." He related an anecdote about rabbis who decided that an enzyme isolated from pigs "did not carry with it the essence of the pig"; cheese made with the enzyme therefore remained kosher. "New knowledge will create accommodations in different religions," Venter observed. S
Douglas Steinberg is a freelance writer in New York.