“We did it!” shouted T-shirts sported by the twenty-something technicians in the hallways of Human Genome Sciences (HGS) at a ribbon-cutting ceremony this spring. The staff at the Rockville, Md., biotech company was celebrating the opening of a $42 million manufacturing plant that marks the firm’s evolution from research startup to an aspiring drug maker.
The event is also a watershed in the emerging era of human “genomics”-the large-scale study of man’s estimated 80,000 to 100,000 genes. HGS helped kick off the commercialization of the field in 1992, when it was founded with plans to use scores of automated DNA sequencing machines to rapidly decode genes. Now, $275 million later, HGS is taking the first batch of drugs discovered via genomics methods into human testing.
Before genomics, the path to a biotech drug typically began when scientists identified the gene that coded for an important, well-studied protein, such as insulin. With the genetic recipe in hand, they could use recombinant DNA techniques to genetically engineer microbes used in large-scale manufacturing of the protein.