Firms to Test Drive Genetic Infobahn

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--An unusual new consortium of companies has inked a 5-year, $40 million deal with Eric Lander, a gene mapper at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to develop new techniques in "functional genomics." The parties hope to find a commercial payoff--in the form of new ways to diagnose, prevent, and combat disease--in the growing body of molecular information on people's genes.

Under the agreement, the New Jersey-based pharmaceuticals giant Bristol-Myers Squibb and two smaller biotech firms--"DNA chip" maker Affymetrix Inc. of Santa Clara, California, and Millennium Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Massachusetts--will give the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research equal amounts of cash and equipment for research into faster, more efficient ways to gather and compare genetic data. In return, the companies will receive commercial rights to technologies developed under the program. Most coveted by the firms are automated systems for analyzing the activities of tens of thousands of genes and proteins in normal and diseased cells. Detailed legal provisions, and the nature of the inventions themselves, will govern which of the firms get joint or exclusive rights.

The agreement will significantly boost the current $14 million annual research budget of the Whitehead/MIT center, one hub of the massive government-funded effort to locate and characterize the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 genes in the human genome. That money, most of it from federal grants through the Human Genome Project, has paid for the first rough guides to the 3 billion nucleotides in human DNA: maps studded with thousands of landmarks called "sequence tagged sites" (Science, 25 October 1996, p. 540). Lander says he is now eager to see that information put to work in biomedicine. "We've put 7 years so far into building maps and sequences, telling ourselves that this structural genomic information would help change the world. It's time to take that out for a test drive," he says.