A Good Return

US President Obama said in his speech that that human genome sequencing has contributed $140 to the economy for every dollar spent.

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While there are clearly

While there are clearly scientific and economic benefits from the Human Genome Project (HGP) and the sequencing of the genomes of other species, it is important to put these benefits and their associated costs into perspective. The idea that the US government investment of 3.8 billion dollars directly into human genome sequencing resulted in a 141-fold increase in benefits to the US economy and health care up to 2010 is really ridiculous.

Private industry and non-HGP government- and charity-funded investigator-driven projects really made the major in-roads in the identification and characterization of most of the human genes that have been targeted by the pharmaceutical and biotech industry to date. This was largely before the HGP officially even started. For example, most of the human protein kinases, G protein-coupled receptors, cytokine receptors and ion channels - which account for the vast majority of the pharmaceutical drug targets today - were known and fully sequenced before the government-funded HGP was very far along. Up to 2010, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) estimated that industry alone invested nearly 67.4 billion dollars in R&D. The direct economic returns to most shareholders of companies that funded genomics research was actually pretty dismal over the last decade and a half.

The calculation of the direct and indirect benefits of the HGP by the Battelle analysis did not take into account the impact of other government-funded biomedical research on employment, personal income, output, and tax revenue. It did not consider the impact of the lost opportunity with other types of biomedical research that could have resulted in the development of better diagnostics and therapeutics amongst many other potential benefits with the diverted funding to the HGP. Decreased funding in these alternative or complementary areas may well have resulted in greater net losses than the gains attributed to the HGP.

After more than a decade since the first complete sequencing of the human genome, it appears that less than 3% of it actually encodes proteins, rRNA, tRNA and µRNA. We still don't know the exact number of human genes that specify proteins, but have a ball park number of between 21,000 to 23,000. Ten years ago, we did not know the functions of about 40% of these genes. Today, we have still learned very little about the specific functions and regulation of the proteins encoded by these genes.

By contrast, after 10 years of continuous funding, the ENCODE Project finally concluded that as much as 80% of the human genome was functional. In view of the huge disparity in the number of genes and sizes of genomes in diverse species, this is a rather dubious claim. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the flurry of publications that finally resulted from the ENCODE Project closely coincided with its grant renewal applications that have since become successfully funded.