Plans for Genome Collaboration Fail

Any hope for a collaboration between genome scientists at commercial and nonprofit labs dissolved this week in bitter arguments over who would control the raw data. The dispute went public on 5 March, when the Wellcome Trust, a British charity that funds genome research, released a letter spelling out the details of a failed attempt to establish harmony between the commercial and public sectors that are racing to sequence the entire human genome.

Celera Genomics of Rockville, Maryland, galvanized this field in 1998 when Celera's president, Craig Venter, announced that he was planning to create a nearly complete sequence of the entire human genome by 2001, in advance of other labs. Venter said he would patent "several hundred" genes and offer scientists who agreed to his terms a chance to view the data. Nonprofit centers, funded by National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the Wellcome Trust, immediately raced ahead with their own plans to generate a "draft" version of the genome in 2000 and pump their results into public databases. Some observers, however, argued that the public and private labs should work together.

Several efforts to forge a collaboration failed. The letter released by the Wellcome Trust this week describes the most recent breakdown in negotiations, focusing on a 29 December meeting when leaders of both camps gathered near Washington, D.C., to bargain over data and authorship rights. Written by the team representing the publicly funded labs and addressed to Celera, the 28 February letter itemizes a series of "fundamental differences" between the camps and concludes that the idea of combining their data "is no longer workable."

The leaders of nonprofit institutions who signed the letter--including NHGRI chief Francis Collins--claim that they offered Celera 6 to 12 months of unilateral control over any data on the human genome produced by a potential joint research effort. But they say that Celera wanted 3 to 5 years of control, and that this, combined with Celera's other demands, was "not in the best interests of science or the general public."

Tony White, chief executive officer of Celera's parent company, says he and Venter did ask for a period of exclusive control of company data, but not 5 years' worth. White, grumbling that "I'm pretty angry" about the letter's release, claims that the argument boils down to a tussle over who will get scientific credit for completing the human genome. No, says Collins: The real issue is whether the human genome will be locked up by a commercial "monopoly" for the next 3 to 5 years.

With reporting by Leslie Roberts and Elizabeth Pennisi.