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Haseltine Says Biopharma, Duped by HGP, Should Turn to Expression Genomics

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ, Sept. 19 - Investors and others who gripe that genomics hasn't delivered have it all wrong, said Bill Haseltine.


According to the Human Genome Sciences CEO, "The general perception is that the promises of genomics have largely been much greater than reality" of genomics. "That's certainly not my belief, but it's an understandable one."


In fact, said Haseltine in the keynote address at the World Genomics Symposium here, genomics has delivered exactly what it was meant to: new drug targets.


Haseltine, long known for his contrarian stance as a genomics businessman, says that the leaders of the Human Genome Project deserve some of the blame for the soured attitude hanging over the industry. They misled the public and misunderstood the needs of the pharmaceutical industry, he charged.


Take the human genome sequence. "One of the problems" was that the announcement that the genome was done "was premature," Haseltine said. "If we were the moon project, it would be like saying that we had gotten to the moon and [landed] when we were only 20 percent of the way there."

Adding that he is skeptical that the project will even finish by the 2003 deadline it has set for itself, Haseltine said: "We as a community suffer from the political and commercial and scientific hype."


Furthermore, a human-genome sequence and a bunch of unvalidated targets weren't what drug companies really needed in the first place, he posited. "There has been a series of long-term miscalculations on the part of the Human Genome Project about what is most important to medicine and pharmaceuticals," Haseltine told the 150 or so genomics industry execs and scientists gathered for his Wednesday afternoon lecture in the Atlantic City Convention Center.


"Genetic genomics" is what Haseltine called the brand of research that has been touted up till now--a method for determining variants and differences between species. The technology as it has been developed, he said, "is meant to be applied to populations where there is a clear lineage." Places such as Estonia could benefit from these technologies, but in outbred populations they might never have an impact.


Instead, "expression genomics" is what pharmaceutical companies need most, Haseltine said. "I can't express enough how important having a complete set of expressed genes is for medicine [to progress].... I would urge support for expression genomics to accelerate discovery," he said. In other words, drug developers don't need to understand how genetic difference occur as much as they need to understand how to change them.


"We've made dramatic progress in sequencing the human genome, but most applications are quite distant," he said.


Murmurs of "he's right" and "I agree" could be heard as attendees filtered out of the meeting room. And after hearing that dismal forecast, who could be blamed for skipping the rest of the conference to try his luck instead at the slot machines?

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