A Second Private Genome Project

It's hard to imagine competition in the human genetics research business getting much hotter, but the temperature just rose a notch. Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc., a genetic data company in Palo Alto, California, announced yesterday that it plans to invest $200 million over the next 2 years to sequence all the protein coding regions of the human genome.

Incyte's goal is to hunt for simple variations in the genetic code--also known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs--and locate them and about 100,000 human genes on a computerized map. These data will be kept in a proprietary trove, available only to those willing to pay Incyte's stiff fees. Researchers expect to use SNPs to trace patterns of inherited vulnerability to disease and to identify individuals who might benefit from new drugs being developed. As part of this new hunt for SNPs, Incyte said yesterday that it will acquire a small British company, Hexagen Inc. of Cambridge, U.K., which developed a proprietary method for identifying variant genes in the mouse.

Judging by the proposed budget, this project could rival a controversial sequencing and SNP-collection effort announced earlier this year by Perkin-Elmer Corp. and J. Craig Venter of The Institute for Genomic Research (ScienceNOW, 12 May). And it will produce a SNP collection possibly larger--and much earlier--than a fast-moving public project funded by the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute. "Incyte is going to focus on genes and polymorphisms of interest for pharmaceutical development," says Randall Scott, the company's chief scientific officer. He will head a new division that expects to receive "$20 million to $30 million in cash" from Incyte as start-up money. It will raise the remainder of the money, according to Scott, from the sale of new stock, subscriptions to its database, and partnership deals with drug companies.

Other genetic researchers were impressed by Incyte's investment, but were cautious about the likely payoff. Fred Ledley, CEO of a SNP-based pharmaceutical company called Variagenics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, says "it won't be easy" to find SNPs or make them useful in drug research. Others are concerned about the proprietary nature of the venture. Says Eric Lander, director of the MIT Whitehead Center for Genome Research: "More data is good; I'm just sorry it isn't going to be available to the public."