Giving its DNA code away

Public domain: The for-profit rival in the race to map the human genome will give its DNA sequences to a national biotechnology center.

April 27, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Five years ago on a summer day in the East Room of the White House, then-President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair - the British prime minister weighing in by satellite - hailed the mapping of the human genome as "the first great technological triumph of the 21st century." It was an achievement that many said would one day lead to eradication of disease and the creation of made-to-order, individualized drugs.

On each side of the president were the beaming victors, ready to reap the spoils: a brash, but brilliant scientist named J. Craig Venter, then president of Celera Genomics Group of Rockville, and the accomplished Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, an international consortium of academic laboratories led by the National Institutes of Health.

The two factions - the first for profit, the second not - had been bitter rivals in the race to sequence human genes, egging each other forward and ultimately, diplomatically, agreeing to share worldwide credit for identifying the human recipe.

Neither, however, seemed willing to give on one point of contention: whether the data belonged in the public or private domain - until yesterday.

During a routine conference call to discuss quarterly earnings yesterday morning, Celera Genomics announced that after July 1 it would contribute much of its hard-earned DNA sequence data to public domain through the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

"This data just wants to be public," said a pleased Collins, who is also director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. "It's the kind of fundamental information that has no direct connection to a product, it's information that everybody wants, and it will find its way into the public."

Celera Genomics, a unit of Connecticut-based Applera Corp., was unable to make a commercial success trading in the genetic information. It has spent the past three years slowly dismantling its foundation as a supplier of genetic data to instead concentrate on drug development, a transformation that will become official this summer.

"This has been a very long kind of planned exit strategy from that business," Peter Dworkin, Applera's vice president for investor relations, said in an interview. "We're coming to an end of that period."

Also coming to an official end is a contest that has raged for years, begun when Celera increased efforts to map the human genome by declaring it, too, would tackle the project, despite an eight-year head start by public laboratories.

A competition

The story began in 1998, when Applera created Celera Genomics to leverage technology developed by another of its holdings, Applied Biosystems. Applied Biosystems had created the means to sequence genes being used by scientists within the Human Genome Project, under way since 1990.

Celera's presence turned the project into a competition, both frustrating and fruitful for the consortium scientists, who were suddenly forced to speed up their efforts and consider other possibilities.

Access to the resulting information was a battleground from the start, with some opposing Celera's efforts because they feared the company would try to patent the genes and lay claim to the human gene code. Shortly before the historic joint announcement in June 2000 that the first full-length record of human DNA had been catalogued, both Clinton and Blair had argued for "unencumbered access" to the data.

And Celera obliged, with a caveat: cost.

Many believed there was money to be made on the data itself, selling access to it or developing drugs based on it. But it was much easier said than done, and a venture that some say is still best suited to the world of grant-funded research, which can focus on discoveries with less worry about the bottom line.

Celera's get-rich plan was to sell subscriptions to the genetic information, and get "income from customers using our data to make discoveries," Venter, the company's former president, said in 2000.

What he and his colleagues didn't quite seem to grasp was that their counterparts in academia had similar information, and they weren't going to charge for access to it.

Others ran into similar situations, discovering that academics were publishing their research on the Internet, accessible to anyone with a computer and a connection. Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Delaware, for example, began life as a company that sells genomic research databases, but today - like Celera - is becoming a "leading drug discovery and development company by building a proprietary product pipeline of novel small molecule drugs," according to its Web site.

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