Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rewriting Life

When Genes Come True

Pharmaceuticals: The first batch of drugs derived from genomics is on the way.

“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.

This story is part of our July/August 1999 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

But finding a protein’s gene often was a painstaking enterprise that took years of effort. So, HGS and other genomics companies decided to reverse the process by decoding human DNA on a massive scale. They then could fish out genes and work forward, biochemically speaking, to discover new proteins that are involved in disease processes.

It’s a rapid-fire approach that William Haseltine, HGS’ CEO, has long said would produce a new pharmacopeia. Starting last year, the company began making good on the promise, introducing several candidates into early-stage human clinical trials, including proteins for protecting bone-marrow cells in chemotherapy patients and for facilitating wound healing.

The technology is also identifying hormones and enzymes that conventional drugs can target. Genomics is responsible for more than half the therapeutic targets that pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, N.J., now has in its sights, according to director of science and technology Ron Peppin.

A costly, uncertain road lies ahead before any blockbuster with an HGS logo appears on pharmacy shelves, however. Less than one-quarter of drugs pan out in clinical trials, a process that can easily cost more than $100 million and last a decade.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.