Assisted by the robots and other complex machinery, scientists are studying what happens to the cells as each of the roughly 22,000 human genes is turned off. They hope to find the genes involved in different diseases, the starting point for creating a drug.
It is a merger of sophisticated biology and brute force made possible only because the Human Genome Project provided the identity of all the human genes. But as with so much else that has spun off from the genome project, it is also an expensive gamble, with success far from assured.
"Can I point to a single drug right now that this has facilitated?" said Michele Cleary, Merck's senior director for automated biotechnology. "No, because we are in the early stages of this. There's information feeding into the early stages of the pipeline that we'll see the fruits of in years to come."
Ten years after President Bill Clinton announced completion of the first draft of the Human Genome Project, in June 2000, its application to drug development is still, at best, a work in progress. But while many genetics scientists outside the drug industry say the project has had few medical benefits, industry researchers urge a wait-and-see patience.