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Clinton Pushes for Free Map to the Human Genome

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March 14, 2000 (Washington) -- It was supposed to be a day of handshakes, congratulations, and awards, recognizing the 1999 recipients of America's medals for science and technology. It was perfectly planned to coincide with Albert Einstein's birthday. But Tuesday, in the same room where Lewis and Clark once planned the expedition that led to the Louisiana Purchase, President Clinton could not help but address a possible rift between public and private researchers over who would control the impending map of the human genome.

"Keeping the code accessible is the right thing to do," Clinton said, urging other countries to follow suit. "As scientists race to decipher the alphabet, we need to think now about the future."

In an earlier joint press release with British Prime Minister Tony Blair meant to reaffirm an existing agreement between the U.S. and the U.K. to release the raw data, Clinton and Blair expressed similar sentiments. "Unencumbered access to this information will promote discoveries that will reduce the burden of disease, improve health around the world, and enhance the quality of life for all humankind," they said.

While Clinton and Blair support patent protection for gene-based inventions, both agree that the raw fundamental data "should be made freely available to scientists everywhere."

It was a message clearly meant for private concerns doing proprietary research into the human genome. It was a call for them to establish an alliance with public researchers to create a more accurate database. But while scientists agree that sharing public and private data would create a better database by allowing them to compare and contrast their results, not everyone believes that a rift even exists.

It is more of a misunderstanding, according to the biotechnology company Celera Genomics. Some scientists have argued that patenting the human genome, which private biotechnology companies may do, will interfere with gene-related research. But according to Celera, "Researchers would be free to use the published data in their research at no cost," the company said in a letter to concerned leading scientists. Celera has promised to sequence the entire human DNA by 2001 -- two years ahead of the publicly sponsored genome initiative.

Should a partnership between public institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and private research groups fail to emerge, the real loser will not be the American public, argues Richard van-den-Broek, a senior analyst with the Wall Street firm Hambrecht and Quist, who follows these issues closely. "NIH has nothing to do with drug development," an area of research that would rely on human genome data, he tells WebMD, while pointing out Clinton's statement did make for good press.

Why then raise the issue? It was a preplanned event that was strictly meant to address scientific issues, a spokesperson for the NIH tells WebMD. But rumors abound.

Among them are that drugmakers pushed the Clinton administration to make the statement because they want a free database and that private researchers in fact want to patent individual genes. But others call these rumors ridiculous.

The real value to these databases really will be their "functionality," says van-den-Broek. "The game has just begun," he tells WebMD. "The map is just the first step. The end game for all of these guys is knowing how the genes work alone and in tandem."

 

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