FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Prominent genome researcher J. Craig Venter, left, met up with University of Hawaii oceanographer Dave Karl prior to speaking Wednesday at the UH Medical School in Kakaako. CLICK FOR LARGE
Genome guru wants data used to help patients
The scientist who raced the government to decipher the human genetic code is in another race now to use the information to help patients.
"The biggest challenge is how to have the data impact medicine," says J. Craig Venter, who made history when he published the first genome of a bacterium in 1995 and unraveled the human genome five years later.
A fundraising campaign is planned to try to apply genomic science particularly to cancer, said the founder, chairman and chief executive of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland.
"My frustration in all these areas is that government is moving way too slowly or even in the wrong direction," he said in an interview yesterday with the Star-Bulletin and Hawaii Public Radio.
"The challenge is how to steer these giant barges in a new direction," he said. "Our goal is to impact actual patients with the information as quickly as possible. It's not esoteric science. We want our discoveries to affect lives directly."
Described as a "maverick biologist" and "one of the leading scientists of the 21st century," Venter gave a public lecture last night at the University of Hawaii-Manoa on "The Ocean Genome: A Key to Earth's Habitability." He also gave a seminar on "Genomes, Medicine and the Environment" at the medical school Wednesday.
He discussed some collaborative work with UH oceanographer Dave Karl, principal investigator of the new Center for Microbial Oceanography, Research and Education, and also met with researchers at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
He said he was impressed with the faculty members and research in genetics: "It seems like a new breed was recruited here in the last few years that is really changing the face of the university."
Venter's institute is following up on the human genome -- the genetic material in human chromosomes. Institute staffers are looking at application to human diseases, surveying the ocean's microbial populations on a global expedition with the research ship Sorcerer II, working on new methods of synthesizing segments of DNA and developing new biological energy resources to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
Venter said scientists were naive in initially thinking they could identify a minimal genetic operating system for a cell.
"It's impossible to do that, because the genetic code of any of us or of any species is about half the equation," he said. "Knowing what's in the environment to counteract or complement the genetic code, that's the only way we can define us."
That was the impetus for moving from the human genome to the broader environment, he said.
Speaking on the environment, he said islands are the best places to have totally renewable energy because of sunlight and tradewinds.
"If Hawaii set the goal to be the first state to be totally renewable, it probably would have the best chance of doing it," he added. "It's a matter of change in thought processes."
While some people think windmills are ugly, Venter said he sees them "as some of the most attractive things anywhere because the alternative of having CO2 going into the atmosphere and totally deteriorating it, I don't think is a good alternative."
"If we change the way we think, Hawaii could lead the nation and the world into the renewable phase," he said.
Venter's pioneering shotgun technique of rapidly cracking the genetic code and other new tools are changing the way scientists look at the planet and its terrestrial and marine inhabitants.
"Our view of life on this planet has been based on visual acuity," he said. "What we see is what we measure. Now, we can measure the genetic code and we can find out the real extended diversity out there, and it's at least an order of magnitude greater than anybody imagined."
He said the Sorcerer II is in the Panama Canal now, and he has talked to Karl about the possibility of the expedition coming here next year.
Karl is a member of Venter's advisory panel for the global expedition, and he and his colleagues at UH-Manoa are doing the chemical analysis for microbial samples from all the sites. "What he's been doing here sets a great example for leadership in this field of science," Venter said.
A series of papers for the first third of the Sorcerer expedition will be published in mid-March, he said. In one paper, he said, "we describe 6 million new genes, more than twice as many that exist in the whole history of genetic science.
"If we start characterizing the environment in detail, we will literally have hundreds of millions of genes and organisms to look at that we assume didn't even exist before."