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Audio
Dr Michael Morgan explains what an SNP is
 real 28k

Audio
Dr Michael Morgan explains the implications of the SNP project
 real 28k

Thursday, 15 April, 1999, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Drugs giants unite for medical revolution
Spotting single changes in genes will bring medical benefits
Spotting single changes in genes will bring medical benefits
A new human gene map, which could herald a revolution in medicine, is the aim of a powerful consortium of drug companies, medical charities and research laboratories.

The SNP Consortium is a 28m, two-year effort to track down the tiny changes in genes which make one person different to another. These are called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs.

Pinpointing these changes will lead to an understanding of why some people are predisposed to diseases such as cancer, diabetes, depression and arthritis, whilst others are not. They will also allow new drugs to be more effective and tailored to an individual's genetic make-up.

"The potential benefits for this in human health are dramatic and revolutionary," says Dr Michael Morgan, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust's Genome Campus.


Around 300,000 SNPs will be identified in the first two years
Around 300,000 SNPs will be identified in the first two years
Technological advances are expected to produce a DNA chip, which can quickly analyse an individual's genetic code. This, with a successful SNP project, would mean a doctor's surgery test could give early warning of disease risk and allow drugs to be tailored to individuals.

Free for all

The consortium members include ten of the biggest global drugs companies but the information will not be patented and will be available, free of charge to all researchers.

"For any one company to do it by themselves would be extremely expensive," Dr Morgan told BBC News Online. "They realised it would be much less expensive to do it together. Then we, and others, managed to persuade them there was a lot of merit in making this information widely available.

"It's similar to the concept of open source software - as people use the map they gain information that adds to that map, to the benefit of everyone.

"The SNP database will be an important tool which each company will then use for its own research. That may well lead to a patentable discovery such as a new drug," he said.

The same but different

Humans have around 100,000 genes and 99.9% of those are the same in everybody. Only 0.1% of the genes account for differences between people. The key to the new medical approaches is in the single DNA base variations, SNPs, that are estimated to occur every 1,000 bases.

The SNP Consortium intends to identify up to 300,000 SNPs and map at least 150,000. The DNA used will come from a diverse group of anonymous volunteers. DNA sequences information will come from the publicly-funded Human Genome Project.

The resulting database will be managed by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Genetic concerns

The rapidly increasing knowledge about the human genome has caused concern that, for example, insurance companies might refuse to cover those with genetic risks or that human embryos might be manipulated to remove undesirable characteristics.

"It's quite clear that the more information one has in any area, the more one can do with it, and there's always the possibility of doing harm as well as good," says Dr Morgan.

"But everything that I know about how human society works means that if information is restricted to a few, they can use it however they like. If it is made available to everyone and used in a transparent way, there's much more likelihood of it being used for everybody's good."

Biotech boost

Another concern is that small biotechnology companies might suffer as a result of a large consortium making all their information freely available. This is unfounded, according to Sir Brian Richards, chairman of a number of biotechnology companies.

He told BBC News Online: "Even a large consortium would take a very long time to produce all the SNP data that is of value. I think that if there are opportunities to be found, the small biothech companies will find them - they've shown they can on many, many occasions."

The SNP Consortium members include:

  • Pharmaceutical companies: AstraZeneca, Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, F.Hoffmann-La Roche, Glaxo Wellcome, Hoechst Marion Roussel, Novartis, Pfizer, Searle, and SmithKline Beecham.
  • Medical Charity: The Wellcome Trust.
  • Academic Laboratories: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Sanger Centre, Stanford Human Genome Center Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
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