Building Drama Behind 'The Sequence'

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By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, April 28, 2005

Francis S. Collins arrived a bit late to the theater, so he had to take a seat in the front row -- about two feet from the actor playing Francis S. Collins.

For the next two hours, Collins, who led the National Institutes of Health 's initiative to map the human genome, watched a dramatic interpretation of his head-to-head race with J. Craig Venter and Celera Genomics to deconstruct the essential matter of human life.

"One doesn't expect to experience things like this in one's life," Collins said after the play, called "The Sequence." "I found it totally spooky."

The quest to decode the genome during the 1990s was the formative event of the local biotechnology sector, putting a spotlight on Maryland's I-270 corridor and inspiring a generation of start-up companies. It was also a monumental advance in science that captured the nation's attention and prompted a host of fierce ethical debates.

And, says playwright Paul Mullin , it was an engaging tale filled with two characters who could not be more different from each other -- or more perfect for the stage. Tuesday night's performance at George Mason University was put on by the BIO IT Coalition Inc. , a District organization that promotes collaboration between biotechnology and information technology professionals.

The event was the capstone of BIO IT's fourth spring conference, where tech professionals from around the Beltway discussed the state of the genomics industry, compared notes on government projects and gossiped about the effect of rule changes at the NIH. The group also announced its first board of advisers, which includes John Holaday , chairman of Rockville-based Harvest Bank of Maryland, and Jennie C. Hunter-Cevera , president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute .

The play follows Collins and Venter from the start of their initiatives, through the height of the media feeding frenzy surrounding the two men and the June 2000 proclamation by President Bill Clinton that the race ended in a tie.

Science interjects itself throughout the play, but the dichotomy between Collins and Venter is at the crux of the comedy.

"The classic style of hunting genes is like Sherlock Holmes. . . . If I'm a detective, I'm more like Dirty Harry," says Venter's character, who is portrayed as a swaggering, ambitious renegade with a filthy vocabulary.

Collins's character comes across as a slow, methodical man who was lost in the public relations game and consumed by the belief that the gene sequence should be used for public good, not private gain.

"I think the playwright was awfully generous to me. I suspect Craig would have enjoyed it less," Collins said, adding that he has mixed feelings about the prospect of the play being performed for a wider audience. "It's kind of like taking a public bath."

Doug Humphrey held court in the crew's quarters of his 120-foot battleship-turned-pleasure-yacht Friday, expounding on issues like the perfect summer wine (Brachetto d'Acqui -- sweet, rosy and with a hint of sparkle) and what to do if the local Coast Guard unit demands to board your battleship (let them).

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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