A Senate effort to quickly launch a costly biological project to map all known human genes failed recently when an industrial lobbying group, among others, raised objections.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) tried to get the genetics project included in the Senate's version of the trade bill, which passed on July 21, but his fast-moving amendment lost support when the Industrial Biotechnology Association (IBA), a Washington-based trade group, raised objections.
"We had concerns about a project that could cost a billion dollars going forward without any hearings or any committee report or any opportunity to get on the record with opposing points of view," said IBA president Richard Godown.
For two years, researchers have been debating the scientific value of a concerted, detailed dissection of all the genetic material in every human cell. Some scientists feel it will provide unprecedented insights into the more than 3,000 inherited diseases and other common disorders such as cancer. Others believe the project will be a waste of time and will divert funding from other critical research.
Although Domenici didn't win the first round, his proposals have forced the biological community to take the issue seriously. IBA's Godown, for example, said his group had been aware of the debate in scientific circles, but had not studied the policy implications because there didn't seem to be any immediate need to make a decision. The IBA is now conducting a survey of its member organizations before deciding on a position.
Domenici had been pushing the project as part of an overall plan to expand the role of the country's nine national laboratories -- such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the atomic bomb was developed. Domenici's bill -- as an amendment to the trade bill -- initially had the support of a number of senators, but they began to hesitate when questions were raised about the speed with which the project was moving forward.
Senate hearings on the issue could be held soon after Congress returns from its summer recess, perhaps as early as mid-September. The issue will be debated either before the full Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources or one of its subcommittees.