Geneticists are about to get a brand new tool, thanks to a remarkable public-private venture announced today. Ten large, fiercely competitive pharmaceutical companies and the Wellcome Trust, a British charity, are teaming up to spend $45 million to create an archive of human genetic variation. The first results of the work, to be carried out by a network of nonprofit labs, will be released on the Internet on 15 July--free of charge.
The technical goal is straightforward: Identify 300,000 variable points in the human genetic code--known as single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs--over the next 2 years. SNPs are variations in only one DNA base that can serve as physical landmarks along the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome. By mid-2001, the consortium aims to have at least 150,000 SNPs mapped to locations on the human genome. The map will help to hunt down disease-causing genes, which may be used to design new drugs, diagnose illness, and help vulnerable patients avoid bad drug reactions. The SNP Consortium, or TSC (its official name), will publish data every quarter, no strings attached.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), sees the effort as a "groundbreaking" event, adding that "I know of no previous example of this kind of collaboration" between companies and basic biologists. The project echoes a smaller, government-funded effort to create a database of 60,000 to 160,000 SNPs, which Collins and NHGRI launched last year (Science, 19 December 1997, p. 2046). But Collins says the two are "complementary." TSC will be collecting random data, he explains, while half of the government-funded investigators will be focusing on specific genes involved in disease. The new consortium, Collins says, "in no way implies that we should diminish our efforts."
The commercial backers--a Who's Who of the drug industry--expect that SNPs will enable them to develop and sell drugs more effectively. The Wellcome Trust is putting up $14 million; the corporate backers, at $3 million each, include: Bayer Group AG, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Glaxo Wellcome PLC, Hoechst Marion Roussel AG, Monsanto Co., Novartis AG, Pfizer Inc., Roche Holding Ltd., SmithKline Beecham PLC, and Zeneca Group PLC.