GENET archive


4:Patents:- Human Gene Sequencing Row

Two items from the BBC Online website this week

Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 11:40 GMT 
Gene company wants to share

Human chromosomes contain the code for life

A private US company racing to decode all the genes in the human body says it still hopes to work closely with publicly-funded research organisations. 

Our sole concern is that our data would be used by a competing database company - we want to protect the database from being pirated said Paul Gilman, Celera  

The statement follows an acrimonious fall out between Celera Genomics and researchers from the public organisations which include the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the UK Sanger Centre. 

The row followed a meeting exploring possible collaboration and led to Dr John Sulston, Director of the Sanger Centre, saying: "The emerging truth is absolutely extraordinary. They really intend to establish a complete monopoly position on the human genome for a period of at least five years." 

However, Celera has responded by saying its only concern is preventing any other private company exploiting its work, if it releases its data to the publicly-funded researchers. 

Race to decode 

Both the public and private teams are in the process of decoding the entire sequence of human DNA. They use different techniques but should both complete their initial drafts this year. 

However, while the publicly-funded bodies post all their data on the internet, Celera is keeping its information secret and intends to patent the most useful sequences. 

Scientists mapping the human genome hope to mine its secrets for information which could help in diagnosing and treating disease. 

Craig Venter has been dubbed the Bill Gates of biotechnology
Celera's founder, Craig Venter, says its data will be much more valuable if it is compared and contrasted with the data produced by the public researchers. These scientists agree. 

But on Monday, some of the public researchers revealed details of a meeting with Celera and said the proposed alliance had fallen apart before it had even started. They expressed regret because they thought shared data would be more accurate and, in the long run, more useful to all scientists. 

"Little or no cost" 

On Tuesday, Celera published a letter addressed to four senior researchers involved in the publicly-funded effort. 

It reads: "Celera's goal is to both discover and broadly disseminate the human genome sequence. Given the costs and value of this effort, we attempted [at the meeting] to clarify a dissemination model that is fair and reasonable. Particularly for pure research applications, we foresee information being released at little or no cost to the end user." 

Paul Gilman, Celera's director of policy planning, said he thought a public alliance with Celera could follow along the lines of a collaboration that has resulted in the near-complete sequencing of the genome of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. 

Celera worked with a team at the University of California Berkeley to sequence the fly's genome. It said in September the sequence was about 98% complete and plans to publish the information later this month. 

 Monday, 6 March, 2000, 12:29 GMT 
Gene firm labelled a 'con job'

Human chromosomes - contentious coils of DNA 

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse 

Dr John Sulston, director of the Sanger Centre, Britain's leading gene-sequencing lab, has attacked the American company Celera Genomics and its director Dr Craig Venter over their intention to make money selling a combination of public and private DNA data. 

In an escalation of the international war of words over the use of genetic information from the project to read the human genome, our DNA blueprint, Dr Sulston said that the public has got to know what is really going on. 

"It would be hilarious if it wasn't so serious for all of us," he told the BBC. 

'Con job' 

Celera Genomics is using private money to compile its own human genome database. Because of the technique it uses to 'sequence' human DNA the company requires the addition of data from publicly funded institutions like the Sanger Centre, to complete its goal. 

Dr Sulston said that Celera "hoover up all the public data, add a bit of their own and sell it as a packaged product. It is fair enough if people want to buy it. That's up to them." 

Genes are our birthright
  But he added that the Celera data is something of a "con job," saying that they are "pretending to do something they are not." 

Dr Sulston draws the line at patenting this information and allowing a private company to own intellectual property rights to genes. Genes are our birthright he says and nobody should own them this way. 

Following discussions between the Sanger Centre and Celera Genomics Dr Sulston added: "The emerging truth is absolutely extraordinary. They really intend to establish a complete monopoly position on the human genome for a period of at least five years." 

"People ought to know about it." 

But if private companies intend to make money from human DNA data should not publicly funded institutions be a little more reticent about releasing all their data to the public? 

No, says Dr Sulston: "We are doing exactly the right thing." 

As well as the ethical considerations of 'owning' human genes Dr Sulston said that the danger was that Celera Genomics will get its way and persuade politicians to reduce public funding for genome studies in the belief that it can all be done by private companies.

Steve Emmott
Advisor-Genetic Engineering
Greens/European Free Alliance Group
European Parliament
1047 Brussels

Tel/fax +32 2 284 2026