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Genome project spurs boom for life science

The $14.5 billion U.S. investment in the Human Genome Project, completed a decade ago, has paid off more than 60-fold in new jobs, drugs and a rapidly expanding genetics industry, an analysis has found.

The endeavor to map human DNA in its entirety created $966 billion in economic impact and $59 billion in federal tax revenue, according to the study released last week by United for Medical Research and Battelle, two research advocacy groups.

Dozens of companies have started with the knowledge gained from the project, leading to new diagnostic tests and development of medicines that can be matched with gene variants linked to disease. The project triggered a new era in the life sciences, with new oncology drugs and screenings among the early developments in the field, said Greg Lucier, chief executive officer of Life Technologies.

“Up until that time, the pharmaceutical industry was able to have major impact on human health through blockbuster drugs that in retrospect were relatively simple,” he said in a telephone interview. “The ushering in of the genomic era was the beginning of truly reducing science to engineering, in terms of the understanding of life.”

Life Technologies also provided funding for the study. The Carlsbad, Calif.-based maker of gene-sequencing machines agreed to be bought by Thermo Fisher Scientific for $13.6 billion last April. Other companies that provide sequencing services or equipment include Illumina and Oxford Nanopore Technologies. The Human Genome Project also spurred consumer-focused genetics companies such as 23andMe that let people find out what diseases they might be at risk for or where their ancestry lies.

Although it took almost $15 billion and more than a decade for the government-funded DNA effort to fully sequence a human genome for the first time, companies can now sequence a whole genome for about $1,000 and do it in a day.

“The Human Genome Project was the starting point of that magnificent, incredible effort,” Lucier said.

The market for gene tests may expand to $25 billion from $5 billion within a decade as more doctors use a patient’s genetic makeup to tailor treatments, according to a report last year from UnitedHealth Group Inc., the largest U.S. health insurer.

“This report illustrates the vital role that key federal research funding plays in growing the U.S. economy, creating new industries and innovative technologies and producing the diagnostics and treatments that can save lives,” Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research, said in a statement.

Some of biggest innovations have been in the field of oncology. The actress Angelina Jolie recently became the new face of breast cancer, after announcing that she’d had a double-mastectomy upon discovering that she carried a gene that predicts about a 60 percent chance of developing the disease.

Thanks to the advances in genetic screening, drug developers also now look for genetic mutations in tumors that can explain why they grow and metastasize, and create drugs to specifically target that aspect of the disease.