Genetic scientists consider cooperating

NIH, private company could speed sequencing

November 17, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

The archrivals in the race to create the first blueprint of human genes are talking about joining forces, hoping to accelerate one of the most important research projects in biomedicine.

The National Institutes of Health and Celera Genomics Corp. say there are no proposals on the table. But they are talking informally and agree they have more to gain than lose by cooperating.

Their goal is to determine the sequence of all 3 billion chemical units, called nucleotide bases, in human DNA. Both sides pledge to complete that sequence -- called the human genome -- in the next 12 to 24 months.

Dr. Paul Gilman, a senior scientist at Celera, said a collaboration "benefits the public, because it would lead to a more rapid completion of the sequencing." It would also save Celera money, he says, and let the Rockville company focus on its main business: packaging genetic information and selling software for drug research.

"We really need to figure out how to finish the sequence faster," said Kathy Hudson, assistant director of the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute, the agency leading the $3 billion public effort. The NIH has been trying to work with Celera, she says, since the company was launched in May 1998.

"The news is that Celera's interest in collaborating has gone up," Hudson said. "Ours has always been there."

A scientist with ties to both the NIH and Celera says the current discussions were started by Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., one of the NIH's three big sequencing centers.

Lander, the scientist said, sees himself as the "Henry Kissinger" of a potential detente between J. Craig Venter, founder of Celera, and Dr. Francis Collins, chief of the NIH's Human Genome Project. For a while, Venter and Collins belittled each other's scientific strategies in public.

Some wonder whether Celera's interest in ending the race is a signal that it is losing.

"I think they are caving in," said Dr. Matthew Heil, a contributing editor of Genetic Engineering News. "Why else would they collaborate?"

Powerful new computer programs that assemble genetic data might have made the NIH's job easier, he says. "It takes away some of the advantage that Celera was going to have."

Not everyone sees it that way.

Dr. Hamilton O. Smith, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and a chief architect of Celera's effort, thinks the company has a good chance of beating the NIH. But a merged effort would mean sequencing the genome much faster.

Venter could not be reached for comment. But Dr. Victor McKusick of the Johns Hopkins University, a pioneer of medical genetics and a member of Celera's scientific advisory board, says Venter is concerned about Celera's image.

"They're looked on as the bad guys by their scientific colleagues and even by the public," he said. Working with the NIH could change that.

A month ago, Celera said it had sequenced 1 billion nucleotide bases -- about a third of the genome. The value of its stock rose 35 percent in two days. The NIH says it has also sequenced about a billion bases, but to a much higher standard of accuracy.

The NIH officially started work on the genome in 1990, while Celera's effort began Sept. 9. The biotech company has pledged to publish a complete genome by the end of 2001.

"We think we can do better than the 2001 deadline," Gilman said.

The NIH, meanwhile, is aiming to finish its work by 2002, "or earlier," Hudson said.

One critical issue for both sides is access to the data. Venter has said he will publish Celera's data every three months, after the company has had a chance to file patents on some genes. The company has already filed provisional patent applications on 6,500 genes.

Human Genome Project researchers, meanwhile, publish their findings on the Internet every 24 hours. Many pushed the NIH to accelerate its efforts after Venter launched Celera. They hoped to block Venter from patenting genes by putting as much of the human genome as possible in the public domain.

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