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DoubleTwist's Program: The Human Genome's Equivalent of Napster

August 07, 2000|ESTHER DYSON

Pioneering scientists have now mapped the entire human genome, building a huge database of all the human gene sequences. This database, however, is only the beginning.

The information is raw and undefined, and much of it is superfluous data that sometimes just get in the way. "It's simply a listing of 3.5 billion base pairs [sequences of letters] containing genes, with no meaning," says John Couch, chief executive of DoubleTwist Inc., a genomic software company with high-speed tools to analyze such data. "We put in the punctuation and some spacing so that you can see what the words are. But no one really knows what they mean yet."

The challenge now is to match that information, still abstract, to actual real-world data--DNA sequences of actual people, statistics on populations and conditions, family trees and histories, precise medical information.

With access to the genomic information and software such as DoubleTwist's, pharmaceutical companies will achieve a better understanding of human frailties and genetic conditions and then use that information as the basis of further research.

But even as pharmaceutical companies look at the opportunities to create mass-market drugs and remedies of new kinds, there's more to the genome than just a large-scale business opportunity--or even the promise of solving great health problems.

The genome can also be a resource for individuals not just as consumers of health-care products, but also as producers. Here's how: Consider the genome the equivalent of the huge body of music the world now has (and ignore issues of copyright, which are relevant for music but should not be for the genome). The Internet allows anyone to have access to that resource--after all, it's just information--and tools such as DoubleTwist's allow users to manipulate the data.

In some ways, it's the scientific equivalent of Napster--the service that lets users share music with one another--but enriched with tools that allow users to participate actively. Call it Genester?

Perhaps it's not surprising that Couch, 52, was one of the early executives at Apple Computer, which used the motto "the computer for the rest of us." Couch has brought some of that thinking to his new job, which he took in September 1997.

DoubleTwist began as Pangea Systems, a company that sold expensive enterprise software to pharmaceutical companies and research labs. But Couch saw a different vision: extending access to the genome beyond doctors and research scientists.

He decided that the genome, like so much else these days, is not just public property in principle, but that the public should have access to the tools to study it in practice. And he believes, as he did at Apple, that there is a real business in supplying the software that lets individuals, not just corporations, mine these data.

How does it work? DoubleTwist offers its software online on a subscription basis. The tools do tasks such as comparing genetic sequences, matching them to related proteins or other genes, and tracking correlations in their data. (Behind the scenes are hundreds of powerful computer servers performing calculations and delivering results over the Internet to users.) They can also find medical research on specific topics from a broad range of medical databases, including patents and drug information.

That means that amateur biologists, university students and even high school students can do their own research projects with the same tools as professionals working in well-funded research organizations.

It also gives smaller companies a chance to compete on an almost equal footing with the larger established companies--much as the Internet has already done for many other kinds of businesses. Prices range from hundreds of thousands of dollars for large corporations, to commercial, single-user access to a subset of the service for $10,000 a year, to free academic usage.

DoubleTwist's customers include many of the major pharmaceutical companies, but they also include the Sacred Heart Academy in New Haven, Conn. A class of schoolgirls led by Sister Mary Jane, who has a master's degree in molecular biology, will be showing their work this fall at GSAC, the big annual conference hosted by the Institute for Genomic Research.

Sister Mary Jane, with encouragement and sponsorship from DoubleTwist, is now working on lesson plans to share with other high schools that could use DoubleTwist on a special academic discount. (And one day, I hope, one of those girls will be running a genetic engineering company of her own.)

John Couch's son is also using the system to study the curious outbreaks of deformed frogs that are beginning to trouble biologists and ecologists worldwide.

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