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Q/A: ‘The Greatest Wellness Project’

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Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) still calls it “the greatest wellness project in the history of mankind.” But no one’s going to fault the man Francis Collins calls the “father of the genome project” for failing to adopt its more common name. No matter how unlikely it seems that a politician got the human genome project off the ground, Domenici, now 68, was the first to urge funding for it more than 10 years ago. GT’s Meredith Salisbury recently caught up with the senator via e-mail to find out more about what happened all those years ago — and what’s to come.

You first introduced legislation in 1987 for about $28 million to fund what became the Human Genome Project. Why did you think this was important?

DOMENICI: The idea, as first discussed with me by Dr. Charles DeLisi, offered an immense challenge, a substantial risk of failure, and benefits to humankind virtually beyond our ability to comprehend. It required advances in many fields to succeed, but clearly required the immense computational capabilities that the Department of Energy had been acquiring for years. Some of the DOE labs, especially Los Alamos and Livermore, were leaders in this field and had developed many of the biological technologies that allowed the project to be contemplated.

Federal funding must be evaluated for projects through consideration of the benefits and risks. This was a clear winner. It was surprising, and in retrospect amusing, that many scientists argued strongly against the genome project. I remember it being called everything from a project to “employ bombmakers” to a “mind-numbing” simple cataloging effort.

What is the role of the government in projects like this? When Celera threw its hat in the ring, should the government project have stopped and let the commercial side handle it from there?

DOMENICI: It certainly was not clear in the early stages of the project, or in the early stages of Celera’s entry into the efforts, that either group would succeed — or at least that they could succeed on anything approaching the time scale that Celera suggested might be possible. Both programs evolved tremendously as they progressed. Both used information gained by the other; there were many synergies. There is no question that the presence of the two approaches led to a more rapid and more accurate state of knowledge. Having two different approaches on a project of this magnitude, approaches that provide a series of checks and balances on the accuracy of the final products, simply serves the public better.

What now? Is this the time that government can cut back on funding? Or will there be more funding needed?

DOMENICI: There will be a long path from publication and preliminary analysis of the genome to understanding of genomic function and finally to application of the information in new ways to advance human wellness.

Where commercial possibilities are identified, we should anticipate that the business community will be more than ready to jump in — and we need to avoid situations wherein the government is in direct competition with a company product. But many of the discoveries will not have commercial implications, though they may have important implications for how people improve their own wellness based on new knowledge.

It is likely that understanding the genomic influences on proteins, and the interactions among proteins and external variables, is the next major challenge — and one that will require the best minds in both private and public entities for a very long time. On the other hand, the genome project was initially viewed as a far longer program than has been demonstrated, so let us not jump to conclusions that the protein interaction problems are impossible.

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