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Report Suggests Big Payoff from Human Genome Project

This article has been updated with comments from a study co-author.

By Matt Jones

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Human Genome Project was the spark for major breakthroughs in the biomedical and biotech fields, and the government money that funded it has already paid off many times over in terms of economic output, taxes, and start-up companies, according to a new industry report.

The US government's $3.8 billion in spending on the HGP over 15 years has been critical to driving a total of $796 billion in economic output impact through companies in the life sciences using tools and technologies and research funding, the analysis from Battelle Technology Partnership Practice found.

The report, "Economic Impact of the Human Genome Project," said the HGP funding between 1988 and 2003 has resulted in $244 billion in personal income as of 2010, and in that year alone human genome sequencing projects and associated research and industry activities generated $3.7 billion in federal taxes.

Also last year, this field directly or indirectly generated $67 billion in US economic output, and supported 310,000 jobs producing $20 billion in personal income, said Battelle.

The analysis, which was funded by the Life Technologies Foundation, does not claim that all of this economic impact came directly from genomics, but that these industries were born of and still are driven by the technologies developed by the HGP, as well as those developed simultaneously by the private effort led by Celera Genomics.

The advancements springing from DNA sequencing and other genomics technologies already stretch beyond medicine, into agriculture and energy production, for example, and new applications for these tools will continue to arise, according to the report.

"From a simple return on investment, the financial stake made in mapping the entire human genome is clearly one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars the US government has ever made," Life Technologies CEO Greg Lucier said in a statement accompanying the report. (Life Technologies is one of the biggest firms in the genomics tools space, generating fiscal-year 2010 revenues of $3.59 billion.)

On top of the initial $3.8 billion spent on the genome project, another $7.2 billion in federal funding, primarily from the National Institutes of Health, were spent on follow-on projects supporting major genomics assets, Battelle estimates.

At a time when federal deficits and a budget-planning season suggest that cuts for federally-funded research could be on the way, Lucier said that the HGP "has been, and will continue to be, the kind of investment the government should foster … ones with tangible returns.

"The initial dollar investment has already been returned to the government via $49 billion paid in taxes," he added.

"We're not saying the $3.8 billion in federal investment was solely responsible for generating $796 billion, but we're saying that it was a foundational investment that has helped lead to that industry occurring, Simon Tripp, a co-author on the report and senior director of Battelle's Technology Partnership Practice, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

Tripp explained that the number represented "a cumulative impact."

The report also suggests that the overall impact of the sequencing of the human genome has just begun, and that large-scale benefits in a diverse range of areas lie ahead. The HGP is "arguably the single-most influential investment to have been made in modern science and a foundation for progress in the biological sciences moving forward, Battelle said in statement.

"Today high-speed sequencing and advancements in genomic data analysis are empowering unprecedented advancements in biological sciences and being applied to the most pressing issues facing the world — human health and medicine, feeding a rapidly expanding global population, developing advanced biofuels, and protecting the environment," Tripp said.

"The ability of modern science to address these large-scale issues via genomics stands as testimony to the vision and foresight shown by HGP supporters, leaders, and participants."

To generate these numbers, which represent over two decades of funding and economic activity, the Battelle researchers looked at six business and research sectors in the US including genomics-related bioinformatics and custom programming services; medical and diagnostic labs using genomics; biologics and diagnostics; analytical lab instrument manufacturing; scientific R&D services; and genomics-related drugs.

Tripp said that if they had searched for related economic outputs outside of the US they would have found an even larger impact from the HGP, particularly in the UK which was a partner with the US on the project.

The authors also created a custom longitudinal database (using the National Establishment Time-Series database developed by Walls & Associates) following every US firm and R&D organization with genomics-specific products and services as their principal activities, and filled with annual data from Dun & Bradstreet.

This database enabled Battelle to capture recent and historic employment for genomics firms and to create an "exhaustive methodology" that includes companies that started up and already went out of business, or those that were acquired or merged with other firms.

Tripp said that the end product was "a very reliable data set" covering the genomics spectrum, and that there are many ways those data can be sliced and diced.

When all of the results of the impact of the HGP began adding up, Tripp told GWDN, "We were surprised both by the size of the economic impact and by the broad scope of functional benefits that have occurred across science and technology."

A guiding aim behind the report was to look at the impact of the HGP in a holistic way, Tripp said, and to begin to measure its "impact on various human endeavors" beyond jobs, revenue, taxes, and other economic indicators.

"The purpose of doing the human genome project in the first place certainly wasn't to generate the genomics industry," he said. "In many respects the economic impacts that have occurred following on from HGP were a nice bonus benefit, but were not the primary reason for performing the work."

Tripp said that the overall effects of the HGP have been "stunning," with its impact being felt far beyond human health, and in areas as diverse as renewable energy, food and agriculture, veterinary medicine, industrial biotechnology, biofuels, environmental protection and remediation, homeland security, and forensics.

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