Inside an old factory building in Cambridge, Mass., a remarkable machine with the improbable name Zeus is hard at work. Flexing its two robotic arms, the computer-driven device reaches again and again into a storage area the size of a toddler's crib, where thousands of individual samples of genetic material sit in tiny wells etched into plastic plates, each one identified by a unique bar code. One by one, Zeus searches for a particular code, dips into the corresponding well with a fine, quill-like probe and picks up a minuscule droplet of liquid DNA.
Then Zeus transfers each precious droplet to a nearby sheet of nylon, moistens a designated spot and pivots back to the glass plates to find the next sample on its list. When Zeus is done, the nylon sheet will be spotted with a grid of about 1,000 droplets, forming what researchers call a microarray. Once the machine has created a few dozen of these arrays, they will be rolled up, inserted into glass tubes and doused with radioactive dye and genetic material from a range of human tissue types--from normal, healthy cells to diseased cells representing breast, prostate, lung or colon cancer. Emerging from this experiment will be a set of data points, glowing with eerie phosphorescence, that may someday lead scientists to a new cure for one of the deadliest scourges known to man.
When the human genome was sequenced last year, scientists finally gained access to the full text of God's reference manual: the 3 billion biochemical "letters" that spell out our tens of thousands of genes. These genes, strung out along the 46 chromosomes in virtually every human cell, carry the instructions for making all the tissues, organs, hormones and enzymes in our body.
Once scientists have decoded these instructions--a process already well under way--they should have a better understanding of precisely what happens, down to the molecules within individual cells, when the body malfunctions. And, says Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Research Institute, "if you understand the genetic basis of a disease, then you can predict what protein it produces and set about developing a drug to block it."
Here in Cambridge, a new industry is quietly taking shape that proposes to do that on a grand scale, as companies with names like Biogen, Genzyme, Genetics Institute and Millennium Pharmaceuticals--Zeus' home--prepare to change forever the way doctors fight disease. They're not alone: spurred by the prospect of scientific glory and enormous profit, big pharmaceutical firms and university and government labs have been joined by scores of new companies, not just in Cambridge but in Montgomery County, Md., Silicon Valley and other high-tech hot spots around the nation. It's a virtual gold rush to mine the mountain of potentially valuable data the genome contains.