In 2003, one of the most ambitious international scientific research projects ever attempted was declared complete. First proposed back in the 1980s, the Human Genome Project (HGP) had the goal of identifying and mapping out all of the genes that make up an individual – together known as the human genome. For the first time in history, we would be able to read nature’s blueprint for building a human being.
Launched and funded by the US government, the HGP took place in 20 different universities and research centres in the US, UK, Japan, France, Germany, and China. A parallel project was also run by a private company, Celera Genomics.
HGP researchers set out to determine the order, or sequence, of all 3.3 billion chemical bases that make up the human genome, with the ultimate aim of finding the genetic roots of diseases, and developing new ways of treating and preventing them.
Benefits of the HGP started to become clear even before the project was complete. Companies were able to start offering genetic tests that could show people if they were predisposed to certain diseases, such as breast cancer. In the future, knowledge enabled by the HGP is likely to lead to a whole raft of medical advances that may otherwise not be possible.
For cancer researchers, the HGP marked the first step in the journey to understand the biology of cancer. The US government has since launched an even more ambitious project, aiming to catalogue all the genomic changes involved in cancer: The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). Applied to the 50 most common types of cancer, this could prove the equivalent of more than 10,000 HGPs in terms of the volume of DNA to be sequenced.
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