Access to gene data urged

Make human code freely available to all, Blair, Clinton say

Some biotech stocks fall

Deciphering genome is expected to yield new drugs, vaccines

March 15, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called yesterday for the soon-to-be-deciphered human genetic code to be made freely available to medical researchers around the globe rather than monopolized by a few corporations.

In their joint statement, Clinton and Blair said "unencumbered access" to the information would lead to medical and scientific breakthroughs that could "reduce the burden of disease."

Though the comments were applauded by academic gene researchers and executives of gene research companies, they sent shares in some of the best-known genomic companies tumbling.

Some stocks, including Rockville-based Celera Genomics Group, lost more than 20 percent of their value.

The two leaders characterized efforts to come up with an blueprint of the entire human genome -- a road map of the chemical codes that control life -- "one of the most significant scientific projects of all time."

Experts believe there are 100,000 to 150,000 human genes.

The statement is evidence that political leaders are grasping that the anticipated event could be a milestone as significant as the smashing of the atom or man's landing on the moon.

Their comments also added to a growing debate among academic and other gene researchers concerned about private corporations' increasing efforts to lock up patent rights on human genes they discover.

That debate was touched off in 1996, when a group of leading scientists, concerned over efforts to privatize gene data, called for policies that would ensure public access to the human genome once it is complete.

Some observers said yesterday's statement by Clinton and Blair is a sign that they agree with that position.

Chilling effect of patents

More recently, some medical researchers, including Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus, have expressed deep concern that gene patents might serve to deter gene researchers from pursuing projects.

The reason is that they fear they would have to give companies a share of any profits from drugs or other new products developed from their work on genes under patent or else face legal challenges to their work.

Biotechnology and other companies pursuing gene research and patents have argued that without patents, no one will attempt to develop vaccines, drugs or medical diagnostics based on genes because there would be no guarantee of recovering the staggering cost of research and development.

The two main efforts to complete a map of the human genome are being led by the $3 billion Human Genome Project, an international effort with government backing, and PE Corp.'s Celera Genomics Group.

Efforts to forge an alliance for work on the project between the government project and Celera collapsed this month over charges that Celera was demanding exclusive rights to the data for up to five years.

Computers and robotics

Both groups are using powerful new computers and robotics to collect and compare genetic data.

Yesterday's call for "open access" to raw data on the human genome was enough to hit the biotechnology sector hard, especially companies engaged in discovering genes and the role they play in health and disease.

Among those hit hardest was 1-year-old Celera, whose stock has risen sharply since last summer. The company's shares, which hit a 52-week high of $276 on Feb. 25, fell $39.25, or 21 percent, yesterday, to close trading in the regular session at $149.75.

A shock to stocks

Other gene research companies whose shares fall yesterday included Human Genome Sciences Inc., a Rockville company attempting to develop drugs from genes and proteins.

Its stock fell $29.04, or 19 percent, to $123.51.

Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc. a Palo Alto, Calif., company that sells genomic research databases, fell $53.50, or 27 percent, to $143.50.

Affymetrix Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., company that sells gene research microchips embedded with DNA, fell $34.18, or 14 percent, to $203.06.

"There's been a gene land grab afoot for some time," said Winton G. Gibbons, senior biotechnology analyst at William Blair & Co. in Chicago.

"These comments are going to create uncertainty about what can be protected and what won't. This will continue bringing valuations down in the short term."

Nothing new

Paul E. Kelly of ING Barings Ltd. said, "It seems like [Clinton and Blair's comments] have stirred up a lot of concern among investors, but calls for open access in gene sequencing isn't new.

"Ultimately, the commercial value lies in being able to take that information and translate it into therapies anyway."

Dr. J. Craig Venter, Celera's president, said the Blair-Clinton statement is consistent with his company's business plan.

Celera plans to release all of its data to scientists and researchers and will get income from selling access to processed information, he said.

"Our model was never based on keeping the human genome secret," said Venter, who recently predicted that Celera could complete its work on the human genome by this summer.

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