WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - Scientists said on Monday they had finished the first big step toward mapping the human genetic code by finishing a rough draft of the genome map and by "assembling" it into the proper order.
The public and private efforts, which have argued for months over how and where to publish the information, also said they had agreed to publish it jointly later this year in a scientific journal.
It is only the first step of a decades-long process that they say will transform medicine by allowing doctors to tailor drugs for each individual and to predict who is at risk of certain diseases.
"Without a doubt, this is the most important and most wondrous map ever produced by humankind," President Bill Clinton told a White House ceremony.
"Today we celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book of life," said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which headed the public effort.
Celera Genomics Inc. , a Rockville, Maryland-based company founded with the specific purpose of being the first to map the human genome, said it had finished the sequence and assembled the genetic code.
The Human Genome Project, a collegial and publicly funded international effort that has been working toward the same goal for 10 years, said it had finished a rough draft of the genome sequence and completed 85 percent of the assembly.
The two sides had been negotiating on how best to make the information public and it was not clear that they would be able to reach an agreement. The Human Genome Project has been publishing the information on the Internet as it progresses, while Celera wants to protect corporate rights to the information.
But Clinton said an agreement had been reached for joint publication.
"Public and private research teams are committed to publishing their genomic data simultaneously later this year, for the benefit of researchers in every corner of the globe," said Clinton.
"And after publication, both sets of teams will join together for a historic sequence analysis conference. Together they will examine what scientific insights have been gleaned from both efforts and how we can most judiciously proceed toward the next majestic horizons."
Clinton, whose staffers worked intensely over recent weeks to set up and schedule the joint announcement, spoke poetically in describing how scientists believe their analysis of the genome will transform medicine and biology.
"Today we are learning the language of which God created life," Clinton said. "It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases," he added.
"In coming years, doctors increasingly will be able to cure diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and cancer by attacking their genetic roots.
"Just to offer one example, patients with some forms of leukemia and breast cancer already are being treated in clinical trials with sophisticated new drugs that precisely target the faulty genes and cancer cells, with little or no risk to healthy cells."
British researchers working on the Human Genome Project made the first announcement, telling reporters how their effort had made a rough map of the 3 billion letters of genetic instructions that make us who are.
"For most of us, today's developments are almost too awesome for us to comprehend," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the ceremony by video link from London.
The teams from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and China started their work 10 years ago, painstakingly mapping out the genome gene by gene.
One of the researchers, Craig Venter, broke free from the National Institutes of Health and the Institute for Genomic Research, which he helped found, to set up a company to do the same work only, he hoped, more quickly.
His company, Celera Genomics Inc., has done the first step in a matter of months. Having started in September, his teams of scientists and automated scanners have busted apart, read and assembled all 3 billion letters of genetic code taken from five men and women of various ethnic backgrounds.
What struck him, he said, was how similar they were.
"In the five genomes there is no way to tell one ethnicity from another," Venter said.
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