Company to launch large-scale, Internet-based gene research project

SAN JOSE, Calif. - DNA Sciences Inc. is banking on the Internet's vast reach in its new approach to the frantic, crowded race of genetic research.

On Tuesday, the Mountain View-based company will launch a large-scale gene research project that uses the Internet to collect medical information from any willing donors, healthy and ill, in the United States.

Using this information, DNA Sciences will determine which donors fit into various patient profiles for 20 common diseases the company wishes to study. Blood samples will be taken from these donors, and the samples will be used to determine gene variations that could lead to better drugs and medical treatments for the diseases. The donors will not be paid for their information or blood samples.

''We're creating an opportunity for humanity to help us create a new world,'' said Ray White, the company's chief scientific officer.

Using a Web site - - to create a bank of genetic and medical information, is a bold approach in the crowded field of genomics. Thousands of scientists in the public, private and academic arenas are now armed with the recent findings of the Human Genome Project, and are working feverishly to unleash new ways to treat and diagnose diseases.

Scientists say that understanding human DNA and the role it plays in disease could lead one day to ''personalized medicine'' and possibly cures.

But unlike other efforts, the so-called Gene Trust Project by DNA Sciences appeals directly to the general public, bypassing the usually more specific recruitment programs used by universities, hospitals, or pharmaceutical companies for clinical trials.

''This is not a novel concept, but it's definitely the most broad-based approach I've heard of,'' said Huntington Willard, board president-elect of the American Society of Human Genetics.

DNA Sciences, founded in May 1998, hopes to collect the DNA samples of at least 100,000 people willing to participate in four-year studies. Initial research efforts will focus on Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and breast cancer, and will later expand to a total of 20 common diseases.

Donors participate by completing a confidential personal and family health profile. If their profile matches what is needed for a current research project, the consumer will be asked to donate a blood sample, which will be collected by an independent, qualified health professional.

''Our wide-scale reach via for the first time enables us to conduct studies with large sample sizes that would otherwise have been time-consuming and costly to conduct,'' White said.

The company is working with patient advocacy groups and health-related Web sites to speed up recruitment and hopefully, White said, accelerate discoveries.

Knowing that potential controversies could arise from privacy and ethical issues, DNA Sciences worked to ensure that consumer information would not get into the wrong hands, company officials said. All data gathered through the Internet will be encrypted, and information from the DNA samples will be anonymous.

Those precautions made Susan Joy Friday of Pacific Palisades feel confident about donating information on her 30-plus years of dealing with diabetes and its symptoms.

''The benefits outweigh the danger, and donating blood and telling my family history is the least I could do,'' she said.

DNA Sciences, which is privately held, plans to sell their knowledge of discovered gene variations later to universities, health maintenance organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and possibly medical insurance companies.

The company is backed by The Soros Fund, Apple Tree Partners, Domain Associates, Brentwood Associates Venture Capital (Versant Venture Capital), Pequot Capital, Casdin Capital Partners and Healtheon/WebMD. Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape Communications Corporation and Healtheon Corporation, is an investor and serves on the board of directors, along with James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA.


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