A human DNA bank, intended eventually to contain scientifically useful pieces of every human gene, is being established by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The goal is to provide researchers everywhere with better access to a new kind of research tool that experts say is revolutionizing the study of genetic diseases and the workings of the genetic apparatus that governs the human body.
Over the next 15 years, government scientists say, use of the tool -- special pieces of DNA -- could make it possible to diagnose quickly and study in detail every known hereditary disease.
The tools, called DNA probes, are segments of DNA, the long-chain molecule of which genes are made. Probes can be mixed into a test tube containing chromosomes from a person's cells. The probes will, in effect, search the chromosomes for a certain gene, seeking to bind to it. If the gene is absent, the probes will be unable to bind and will be washed away.
But if the person has inherited a gene for which the probe is designed, it will bind. Because the probes contain radioactive atoms, researchers can easily detect bound probes, proving that the gene in question is present.
"Practically every aspect of human genetics has been revolutionized by the use of DNA probes," said Dr. Jeanette Felix, the National Institute scientist in charge of setting up the DNA bank. She said nearly 1,000 DNA probes have been developed around the world, each intended to seek out one specific segment of DNA. There are an estimated 50,000 genes in the 46 human chromosomes.
"The number of new probes being developed is doubling every year," Felix said. "What we want to do is provide a central repository where each of these can be maintained and made available upon request to other scientists."
The DNA bank will be situated in Rockville at a private facility called the American Type Culture Collection, which has long experience in maintaining standard laboratory cultures of living cells and various microorganisms.
Felix said she is evaluating existing DNA probes, selecting ones that have high priority for early inclusion in the facility. She will then ask the scientists who developed them to donate samples to the repository. Eventually, however, the goal is to include all known probes.
The probes will be maintained in at least two ways -- freeze dried and as spliced into the genes of living bacteria. Such bacteria, under refrigeration, live indefinitely in a form of suspended animation. When withdrawals from the DNA bank reduce the inventory, new copies of the probes can be manufactured simply by allowing the bacteria to warm up and begin multiplying.
The bacterial progeny contain new copies of the probe, which can be extracted and purified for use in research. AIDS RESEARCHER HONORED . . . Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the National Cancer Institute scientist who discovered both the virus that causes AIDS and interleuken-2, the natural substance recently hailed as a major advance in treating cancer, has been named winner of the New York Academy of Sciences Award.
The academy, a membership group of more than 45,000 scientists from the United States and 84 other countries, is scheduled to present Gallo with a check for $5,000 and a certificate at the academy's 168th annual meeting in New York on Thursday.
Describing Gallo as "an original and courageous biomedical scientist," the academy's announcement did not mention that French scientists at the Pasteur Institute, led by Luc Montagnier, published their discovery of the AIDS virus before Gallo published his.
Montagnier and Gallo have been feuding ever since, disputing one another on scientific points about the virus and whether one man's preliminary findings aided the other to the final result.