WASHINGTON -- Government scientists are launching a major project to uncover elusive genetic variations that make people vulnerable to some of the most common diseases, and then determine what in the environment -- pollution, behavior, diet -- pushes those people into full-blown illness.
The surprise: The National Institutes of Health is trying to raise $60 million from drug companies to help do the work, saying an industry-government partnership is crucial to speed research.
Gene discoveries won't become the property of the companies who invest, but instead will be available to all scientists, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni stressed in disclosing the project yesterday.
The NIH hopes to put $68 million of its own money into the three-year project, if Congress approves a $40 million increase over already planned spending.
''This is not just an academic exercise by a bunch of nerdy gene-hunters," said Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH's genetics chief, who said science is poised for ''an avalanche" of potentially lifesaving discoveries.
Most diseases aren't caused by a big mutation in a single gene, but by subtle differences in multiple genes, plus environmental influences.
Yet only last year was research completed that allows scientists to begin a systematic hunt for inherited patterns of DNA variation that make individuals susceptible to -- or sometimes protected from -- common illnesses such as heart disease, asthma, or Alzheimer's.
Those tiny variations in the genetic code are called SNPs, pronounced ''snips," for single-nucleotide polymorphisms. The goal: Compare the DNA of 1,000 people with an illness with the DNA of 1,000 similar but healthy people, to see which SNPs play a role.
They're fairly simple studies, each costing around $3 million -- and NIH already has in hand DNA from thousands of patients to be tested.
Pfizer said yesterday it was giving NIH $5 million to set up the Genetic Association Information Network, and then would pay for five of the studies, $15 million worth.
Affymetrix pledged to perform an additional two studies.
Overall, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, a group established by Congress to encourage such private-public partnerships, seeks to raise $60 million in industry funding for additional studies.
The first diseases chosen for the gene analysis will be disclosed this summer.
What does Pfizer receive from the investment? No patents on discoveries, insisted company vice president Martin Mackay.
But such discoveries could ''make a profound difference in the way we treat disease," he said. ''We can't do it all ourselves."
Gene testing is just part of the project. As Collins puts it, ''Genes load the gun, environment pulls the trigger."