Sitting in the conference room of Human Genome Sciences on a Friday the 13th, Bill Haseltine has a grin stuck on his face that says, today is a lucky day. It is the smug grin of a boy showing off an incredibly cool and impossible-to-find new toy. And make no mistake, the CEO of Human Genome Sciences has an incredibly cool new contraption at his fingertips. He also has a visitor whom he would love to impress: AIDS researcher Anthony Fauci, director of one of the most influential branches of the National Institutes of Health.Haseltine’s toy is actually one of biotech’s most comprehensive databases. By merging a crack team of molecular biologists with computer jocks, the company has generated over the past eight years a user-friendly database of human genes and the proteins they code for that-Haseltine asserts-contains more clues about how to treat and cure disease than all other related databases around the world, commercial and public, put together. It’s just the sort of outlandish boasting that has made Haseltine (pronounced “hazzle-teen”) one of biotech’s most controversial figures. But backing up his claim, the Rockville, MD, company already has moved five drugs into human trials, more than any other genomics-based biotech company.
“Tony, the feeling we have here is we’re doing what most of the world will be doing in 10 years,” says Haseltine, who at the age of 57 has slicked-back, thinning hair and wears owlish glasses. He then looks across the wide conference table that separates him from Fauci, pausing for effect, and says, “Maybe”-as in, maybe the clueless establishment will figure it out by then. Haseltine, who in his double-breasted suit looks more like a Wall Street moneyman than a former Harvard biology professor, follows this jab with a goose-honk laugh and rocks in his leather-lined chair.
Fauci is here to explore one of the potential gold nuggets found by Human Genome Sciences, a protein that stimulates antibody production. But while he’s visiting, Haseltine agrees to let him ask the database-which Haseltine has nicknamed the Oracle-any question that suits his fancy. Fauci says he’d like to search for the “elusive CD8 factor.”
Since 1986, AIDS researchers have known that HIV-infected people who defy the odds and suffer no immune damage spit out a mysterious chemical “factor” from a specific type of white blood cell dubbed CD8. Try as they might, AIDS researchers have failed to isolate this factor. “If we can’t get the factor out of this, we can’t get it,” says Haseltine, as a coworker with a laptop begins to search the Oracle for all proteins produced by CD8 cells.
A projector hooked to the laptop shines its display onto a screen for all to see. The Oracle reveals that so far Human Genome Sciences has found 64 different proteins secreted by CD8 cells. At the time of Fauci’s visit, a whopping 59 of these proteins had never been described in the medical literature or in any public database containing genetic and protein information on humans.
Fauci is beside himself. “That’s terrific. It’s amazing. It’s breathtaking,” he says. “I’m serious. There it is. This is fantastic.”