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Dr. Richard Mural talks about the Completion of the Human Genome Project - 2003-04-16


VOA’s David Borgida interviews Dr. Richard Mural, Director of Scientific Content and Analysis at Celera Genomics about the recent completion of the Human Genome Project.

MR. BORGIDA
And now joining me here in our studio, Dr. Richard Mural, Director of Genome Projects at a Washington area company called Celera Genomics. Dr. Mural, thanks for joining us today. We appreciate it.

We're here to talk a little bit about the mapping of this genetic code, which is a big scientific issue that really the news broke yesterday, but this is something that has been worked on by scientists for many, many months, and you've been a part of this. What does it mean? It's a big question, but for the layman, what does this all mean?

DR. MURAL
This is a project, David, that's been going on for almost 15 years now. It officially started in 1990, and Monday was the culmination of when Francis Collins announced that the Human Genome Project had been completed.

What this means is that, for the first time in history, we have the ability to look at the instruction book for how to make a human being. We know every letter in that instruction book. We now have a big challenge ahead of us to learn how to read it, so that we know what those instructions mean, but it really is a historical time.

MR. BORGIDA
Let's talk about what it means in real terms for those of us who are wondering about scientific research and medical research and so on. What are the real tangible kinds of things that we might see developing out of this?

DR. MURAL
I think that there are two areas that really hold a lot of promise here. And before I go into those, I also have to preface it with we're not going to see these tomorrow. The normal course of drug development is a process that takes anywhere from 10 to 12 years. So, even having all of this new enabling knowledge, to actually see that go into that marketplace is something that's down the road. But what this is going to allow us to do is to look at an individual's genetic makeup and be able to tailor therapies to the individual.

The other side of it is to look at a particular disease and to understand it at a genetic and molecular level and really target that disease much, much more precisely. So, I think that we can expect to see improved personalized medicine as well as better therapeutics, with fewer side effects. And it's quite an exciting time, I think.

MR. BORGIDA
Give me an example, Dr. Mural, if you will. Cancer, Alzheimer's disease, some of the diseases that have befuddled scientists for many, many years, are these the kinds of diseases that this will address in some way?

DR. MURAL
Absolutely. Though it came out before the Genome Project was done, a drug recently that was released, Glivec, which has made immense strides in the treatment of leukemia, is a drug that was developed very much in the model that we expect to see now with the genome. So, first, the gene involved was understood. And by having an understanding of that gene, pharmaceutical companies were able to very precisely target that gene, and came up with an amazing drug that has really revolutionized the treatment of certain kinds of leukemia. I think we'll be able to see that in the cancer area repeated again and again.

As we get into trying to understand what are known as sort of the common complex diseases, the things that we all have concern with, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, these are probably genetically more complicated, but we now have the information that we need to begin to explore those diseases and to be able to go on beyond that.

We are also sequencing other organisms. So, it's not just the human genome that has been completed but recently the genome of the malaria parasite has been sequenced, tuberculosis; the mosquito vector for malaria, Anopheles, has been sequenced. All of these have the hope of moving us toward new therapeutics, new ways of controlling diseases that really have a global impact.

MR. BORGIDA
Is there any connection whatsoever with cloning, which has been very controversial in the last year or so? Any intersection at all?

DR. MURAL
Not really, other than by looking at the DNA we could tell if a clone was really a clone. That would be one of the ways of testing someone's claim to having done cloning. But there is really not a strong connection.

MR. BORGIDA
Generally, though, Doctor, for the scientific community, this is up there with the atom and discoveries that have been historic in nature?

DR. MURAL
Absolutely, yes. I think the expectation is this will be the foundation for work in the biological sciences and the biomedical sciences for certainly the next 20 to 50 years.

MR. BORGIDA
And how long have scientists been working on all of this? You told me earlier that this has been something that has been studied for many, many years.

DR. MURAL
Yes, though it's really amazing. The other anniversary that was celebrated this month is the discovery of the structure of DNA, which was only 50 years ago. So, up until 50 years ago, we didn't even know the chemical basis of heredity. Now we not only know the chemical basis of heredity, but we know the hereditary code for human beings. So, that 50 years has seen amazing developments. And it was only 25 years ago that we were able to begin to sequence DNA.

So, it's actually interesting, genomics has followed Moore's Law, like in computer science, where every 18 months or so our accumulated knowledge goes up by a factor of 2. And that exponential curve has been going on for the last 20 years.

MR. BORGIDA
And more to come, I'm sure, in the scientific community.

DR. MURAL
Absolutely.

MR. BORGIDA
Dr. Richard Mural of Celera Genomics, in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Mural, thanks so much for joining us and shedding some light on this for us. I appreciate it.

DR. MURAL
Thank you, David.

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