The business of genomics is not dissimilar to that of Internet commerce:

it is cash-hungry, volatile and high-risk, with vast sums invested in loss-making firms in the hope of making immense financial returns in the long-term.

Myriad Genetics Inc, which holds the patent on BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes in the US, and soon expects to be awarded the patent for BRCA-1 in Europe, is one of the biggest and most well-established genomics firms.

Set up in Salt Lake City in 1991, it has developed a series of technologies allowing it to identify human genes and proteins that may play a role in the onset or progressions of major human diseases.

Royalties and licence fees from the BRCA tests make it over US$5m a year.

But this is small change compared with the potential riches that could stem from its partnerships with drug companies.

Having identified and patented a disease susceptibility gene, it will receive a royalty on worldwide sales of drugs or other products developed to treat that disease by its drug company partners.

It claims to have discovered a number of major disease-causing genes, including those for breast, ovarian and brain cancer, melanoma, diabetes, and heart disease.

It will also benefit from the US Food and Drug Administration decision in June to approve the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen.

The availability of a drug that prevents tumours from forming is expected to launch a wave of demand for Myriad's tests from women with hereditary risk of breast cancer who wish to avoid breast removal.

A year ago Myriad's share price languished at $8, but a market frenzy led by investors excited by the mapping of the human genome in November has pushed the price up to around $127.

However, its quarterly report in May revealed a net loss of $2m over the previous three months. It had accumulated debts of $50m and had yet to attain profitability. Its enormous capital costs suggest that Myriad, and its rivals, will be nothing less than aggressive in the pursuit of healthy returns on their investment.