Fool Interview With a Biotech Bigwig
Part 1

December 8, 1999

David and Tom Gardner had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Craig Venter, chief scientist and president of biotechnology firm Celera (NYSE: CRA), on a recent Motley Fool Radio Show. In this interview, Dr. Venter discusses the biotechnology industry, mapping genetic code, and his thoughts on male-pattern baldness.

David: Dr. Venter, it's a pleasure to have you on this show. Tom, why don't you just fire away with the cocktail party question?

Tom: Craig, actually I was thinking about this interview in terms of what my mother knows about the world of biotechnology, which is very little, and I was imagining a scenario where we were all at a cocktail party and my mom asked you what you do for a living. How would you explain the industry and your work inside of that industry?

Venter: Actually that's a tough question, but it's a good one in terms of people do want to understand this fundamental information. We're decoding every letter of the human genetic code. The chromosomes that each person gets from their mother and their father comprise about 3 billion unique letters of genetic code that are the fundamental basis of everything that we are as a species physically, emotionally, mentally, and we're trying to decode that massive amount of secret information about life to be able to see if we can understand who we are and where we came from.

David: You say it's a massive amount of information. Can you quantify that?

Venter: Well, if you could read one letter of genetic code per second, it would take each person 100 years just to read the genetic information inside their own cells.

David: OK. Which means, Tom, that it would take you 200 years.

Tom: Now, Craig, I'm wondering when we think about this information, and we think about the ability to view our species to understand who we are and what we're made up of and what the environment around us is made up of, how is this information going to impact our lives -- just the average Joe out there -- 10, 15 years from now, what will it mean to us?

Venter: I think the big difference in medicine as we go forward is going to be personalization of medicine.... We'll be able to have preventative medicine by understanding the basis of our own individual beings. We'll understand our individual propensity for disease, the likelihood that we'll get one disease or another or not get the disease, and we'll have drugs that target each person's individual differences. The best drugs only work on about 60% of the population. It's not unusual for a drug to only work on one out of three people effectively. Those differences are due to the minor differences in the spelling of the different genes leading to different structural changes. So understanding the genetic code means in the time course you were talking about, in the next 5 to 15 years, people will start to get the drugs that they know will work on their system, not be toxic or lethal to them, and actually treat their diseases.

David: And that is truly amazing.

Tom: Now, Dr. Venter, I was reading in the New York Times two weeks ago now that non-accident deaths... can be viewed as a series of preventable illnesses. Is that an overstatement?... Please tell me it's an overstatement. How far can biotechnology reach in the lives of the human species?

Venter: I think depending on the time frame you're talking about, it's going to take the next 100 years to truly understand the information we're generating here at Celera over the next six months. So all of this talk of cloning and dramatically changing the human race is not going to happen. I think each disease is going to be a battle that we have to fight with having this new information. But what's going to change very quickly -- having the complete sequence of the human chromosomes and other species -- is we will have all of the information for the first time to try and understand how cells work, how cancer really happens, and it's only from that understanding will we ever begin to tackle human disease in a comprehensive way.

But I think the danger is overpromising in terms of people should not expect miracles in the next 24 months because we've got this information. But it will catalytically change research around the world overnight, and the hope is changing the basic research paradigm, having all of the human genes for the first time in history we'll be able to truly... do something about diseases like cancer.

David: OK. Duly noted. Dr. Venter, your company is using computing power to gain a leg up relative to the efforts of others, including the government, to do the same thing, which is to map the human genome. Are you surrounded by a bunch of big computers cranking away right behind you?... What's it like at your company headquarters, and talk about computing?

Venter: This facility operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but it's largely automated due in fact to the tremendous technology advances made by the other part of the corporation, PE Biosystems, which has a separate tracking stock from Celera. They've come up with the new machines that help us decode the genetic orders at a magnitude more faster and more accurately than we could before, but that's just the beginning.

In terms of interpreting all of this information, we've had to team up with Compaq (NYSE: CPQ) with their acquisition of Digital using the new Alpha Chip technology to build the world's second largest supercomputer to begin to understand and interpret the human genome. So we have massive computers around us here, large numbers of robots, large numbers of sequencing machines working around the clock trying to make advances in medicine.

David: It sounds pretty cool. Are there laser shots going on all around this facility?

Venter: Each one of the 300 sequencing machine has a laser incorporated into it that's key to its operation. If they were bouncing all around the facility, something dreadful would be wrong.

 Continue to Part 2 »