Big biology is back on the congressional agenda.
Late last week, legislation to begin debating a mammoth project that would provide a detailed analysis of all the genes in the human body was introduced in the Senate. Earlier this year, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) attempted to amend the trade bill to get the ball rolling, but the amendment was rejected.
The new bill contains significant changes and, perhaps most important, it has some pretty powerful sponsors: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), in addition to Domenici.
The tightly focused bill will establish a freestanding National Biotechnology Policy Board and Advisory Panel, ostensibly to help maintain the competitiveness of America's biotechnology industry by setting up policies that "enhance the efficient and timely advance of basic and applied biotechnology-related research . . ."
The heart of the bill, however, is, in the words of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Walter Gilbert of Harvard University, the "holy grail of biology," a huge project to map and sequence every gene in the human body. Information arising from the project could have a tremendous impact on understanding cancer, heart disease, aging and more than 3,000 genetic disorders as well as identifying new products for biotechnology firms and a general insight into how genes control the body.
The technology to carry out such a project exists but is painstakingly complicated. In the past, it has been used on the small scale of individual researchers working on a specific genetic problem. Automatic gene sequencing machines have been, or are being, developed by a number of companies.
Despite general support for the project by leaders of the National Institutes of Health, the biological research community has been less enthusiastic. A number of leading researchers have raised concerns that the project -- expected to cost between $300 million and $3 billion -- will consume too much money, divert resources from other important lines of research and not provide an information bonanza. There's also a social objection: Biology always has been a cottage industry. Big science, with hundreds of scientists working on the same project, such as atom smashers and rockets, has been done by physicists, but not biologists.
Because of the controversy and its big-ticket expense, the human genome project may not move very fast or very far unless it goes quietly. With a presidential election, the end of the Congress and major budgetary pressure, no one is going to have a lot of time to spend on this bill. There will not be great pressures to move it because it is a new initiative and no program will live or die because of it.
Its chances to go through quietly already are uncertain. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has raised concerns about the ethics of how the genetic information will be used. Responding to Hatch's concerns, the proposed legislation includes mechanisms to consider such issues. On the cost side, the bill authorizes only enough money to support the board through 1993. It does not authorize money for the human genome project itself. That battle would come before the board and then Congress and the White House.
For the most part, the bill has been crafted to be non-controversial and merely establish a process to consider the huge project. "The bill is still just a blip" on the legislative horizon, said one legislative observer. "But that's all we want it to be."