BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JUNE 12, 2000 ISSUE
COVER STORY

What This Means to You
Knowing your personal genetic code could help you act to head off illness or help doctors tailor your treatment

The decoding of humanity's genetic heritage will help patients seize control of their own health. ''I think medicine will turn into a consumer business,'' says Kenneth Conway, president of the predictive-medicine unit at Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc.

J. Craig Venter, president and chief scientific officer of Celera Genomics Group, envisions a not-too- distant future in which anyone can get a DVD with his or her genetic code. Eventually, that genetic information will reveal an individual's risk of heart disease, cancer, and other ills. People will see how they fared in the genetic role of the dice--and what they can do to improve their odds.

Already, the race to decode the human genome has turned up so-called Methuselah genes--linked to a long lifespan--and new genes associated with disease. ''Wouldn't you want to know which genes you have?'' says Venter. Conway even imagines that there could a ''test-of-the-month club,'' where people sign up for periodic good or bad news about their genetic heritage.

Of course, discovering that your genes contain the seeds of prostate cancer or Alzheimer's disease doesn't help unless there are ways to ward off the perils. That may take decades to solve. And the lesson of genetic testing so far is that not everyone wants that knowledge. ''Your mother or your sister isn't going to buy information from a genomics company,'' says William A. Haseltine, CEO of Human Genome Sciences Inc. ''What consumers want is a product that will make them feel better.''

Still, people can already buy drugs or make lifestyle changes to help counteract the influence of, say, genes for diabetes or heart disease. Barbara Bradfield of La Canada, Calif., is one of thousands of breast-cancer patients already benefiting from a drug called Herceptin, which targets a particular genetic condition. And Millennium has found that the absence of a particular gene makes it more likely that melanoma will spread. The implication is that patients without the gene should get aggressive treatment. Some researchers predict a flood of targeted treatments that will rejuvenate cells and repair the ravages of aging--a Fountain of Youth in your cells. Vincent Dauciunas, strategic-planning chief in the chemical-analysis group at biotech toolmaker Agilent Technologies Inc., says: ''I tell people that if they live 10 more years, they will live 100 years.''

By John Carey in Rockville, Md.

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