Scientists have long known that our bodies are coded with billions of letters of DNA, but for decades the details of that coding remained a puzzle. The Human Genome Project (HGP), one of APM’s 50 Projects for a Better Future, was a ground-breaking international research effort that sought to change that forever.
Likened to an Apollo space mission for biology, the project began in 1990 and concluded in 2003, marking a turning point for our understanding of genetics. By mapping the complete sequence of the human genome – the map of all 3.2 billion pieces of DNA that make up our bodies – scientists identified the location and function of thousands of genes, shedding light on all our underlying biological mechanisms and paving the way for new treatments to some of the most complicated and life-limiting diseases.
It was also an exemplary feat of project management: the HGP took 13 years to complete, coming in two years ahead of schedule and under budget at $2.7bn.
The first big team science project
“In many ways, the HGP was the first big team science project conducted, where experts of varying skills and disciplines had to come together to achieve a shared goal,” reflects Dr Julia Wilson, Associate Director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, one of the 20 research institutions around the world that contributed towards the project. Twenty years since that first DNA map was completed, she believes the impacts of the HGP “are still being felt across the range of projects undertaken today, from medicine and biotechnology to ethics and policy”.
Today, scientists face a new frontier in genome research. Leading on from the HGP is another international-scale project taking place at the Sanger, the Human Cell Atlas, which aims to chart all the different cell types within the human body. Drawing on genetic technologies developed to speed up the process of the HGP, the Atlas has led to a string of new findings that have helped to further understanding in challenging areas such as cancer treatments, fertility and reproductive health.
Project legacies from the Human Genome Project
Now, research groups around the world including teams at Sanger are taking their data collection further by attempting to genetically sequence all life on the planet. “We can use the information gleaned for biodiversity conservation, climate change, new medicines, foodstuffs, even fuel,” Wilson explains. “In order to deliver that, we need multiple project managers and programme managers to steer the work along in accordance with the timelines, as well as coordinating communications about how that work is progressing across different language and cultural barriers – all to ensure that researchers can focus their own time on the science.”
A legacy of the HGP is that it has changed the way in which large research missions like this are conducted. In his 2020 reflections on the contributing factors that made the HGP a success, human geneticist Richard Gibbs said there were “lofty goals, and major contributors who were convinced of the imperative of completing the project shared core beliefs of the broad impact of a completed human sequence”.
Gibbs, who is also the founding director of the Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center in the US, another key contributor towards the HGP, continued: “The organisational rigour required to manage the HGP was new for biology, and it was apparent that future programmes would benefit from HGP lessons in logistics.”
Lessons in practice during the COVID-19 pandemic
One of the greatest examples of that legacy in practice was observed during the Covid-19 pandemic – something Wilson witnessed first-hand. “There were many overlaps: both projects involved genome sequencing at scale, working with research groups internationally, under huge time-based pressures,” she says.
The British government needed information on how Covid variants were mutating in real time, which meant coordinated mass-scale genome sequencing of virus samples by the Sanger Institute. “Our project managers and engineers looked at the end-to-end process – from samples arriving to the data coming out at the other end, to how that information flowed back to government.”
As the spread heightened, efforts were ramped up – at one stage data sharing every hour to keep on top of the scale of the issue. “Our team managers redesigned that pipeline to make it as quick and efficient as possible,” Wilson adds, and the results can be seen in the success of the UK’s vaccine development programme.
Project management as a force for scientific collaboration
“The fruits of that first human genome is now that we work very closely with pharmaceutical partners, forming partnerships where we can co-create science together to help to develop new drugs,” says Wilson. “Again, project management is crucial to help navigate communications between the different sectors of the life sciences ecosystem, and ultimately support team science to be the best it can be.”
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