Almost Mapped Out: Copy of Human Genome to Be Released Soon

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April 6, 2000 (Washington) -- A private research company racing the government to map the entire human genetic code assured members of Congress Thursday that it will make that information publicly available hours after it is complete. It also announced that it has now completed the first major step in that process -- accumulating the final pieces of the puzzle. Now it has to fit those pieces together.

Celera Genomics, of Rockville, Md., said that it finished gathering all the genetic fragments of the human code earlier this week and is now fitting together those pieces of the puzzle to form the first "working map." The entire process should take about four to six weeks, after which Celera will post that sequence on the Internet, Craig Venter, PhD, Celera's president, told a House committee that convened to look into the progress made in mapping the human genome.

But whether their posting will serve any useful public function remains suspect to many. Celera Genomics will not help researchers who have not subscribed to the company's database interpret that publicly posted map, although it will be published in a form that researchers hopefully can utilize, Venter said.

There is also the issue of sheer volume. It is somewhat of a "cruel joke" to post all the sequenced data, Venter said. "We don't have enough researchers in the world to analyze all the information gathered in the last week, let alone the entire human genome," he said.

On top of those issues, the working map of the human genome is likely to contain some errors, Robert Waterson, MD, PhD, told committee members. That is one of the main reasons why the public sector, including President Clinton and the National Institutes of Health, wants to encourage private companies to participate in forming a public database, said Waterson, who is director of the Washington University Genome Sequencing Center in St. Louis.

Although Celera is not against participating in the public effort, the company does want to protect its work, including its database. To that end, the company will not allow its database to be republished with other researchers' interpretations of the map, said Venter.

To protect that information, Venter said Celera Genomics will seek individual patents for genes that it believes might have commercial value. But because of the medico-legal issues involved, his company does support raising the standard for determining when these patents should be issued.

That means Celera will support a federal policy that requires companies wishing to patent a gene to provide reasonable proof that they understand its commercial value, Venter tells WebMD. "It doesn't have to be absolute proof, but it should be pretty clear that this claim has a reasonable chance," he says.

Under the current system, a patent for a gene can be issued if the company poses even a vague reason for why that gene might have a commercial value. That system has been criticized for leading to a mad rush to patent genes, and as a result, the U.S. Patent Office recently announced that it is considering changing the process to require further proof before granting patents.

But those commercial interests should not and do not preclude the formation of a private-public partnership, Gerald Rubin, MD, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, told committee members. For example, Rubin cited his cooperation with researchers at Celera to decode the genetic sequence of a fruit fly. The results of that successful collaboration were published last month in the March 24 issue of Science.

The scientific community hopes that a collaborative effort can be established between Celera and the government's Human Genome Project, Waterson says. But, he adds, the primary barrier to that collaboration is Celera's refusal to allow its database to be republished with other scientists' interpretations.

Venter admits that a collaboration between private and public entities on the human genome would be beneficial to the scientific community, but he adds that doing that would be detrimental to Celera. The problem is that U.S. law would no longer protect Celera's rights to that database, he says. "We invested our own money to create that database, and our intention is to sell it," he says.

The government's database, on the other hand, will be free for researchers to republish with their own interpretations. A working copy is anticipated later this year, and the final map is expected by sometime in 2003. In the meantime, segments already are being published on the Internet as government researchers manage to decode them.


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