Published on Monday, June 26, 2000 in the Times of London
The 'Book Of Life': Battle For Profits Threatens Pact On Human Genome
by Ben MacIntyre in Washington
 
RIVAL teams of scientists will announce a face-saving draw in their bitter race to decode the human genome today at a ceremony overshadowed by the still-unresolved issue of who should reap the vast rewards from the historic scientific breakthrough.

The publicly funded Human Genome Project (HGP) and the private bio-technology company Celera Genomics, run by the controversial scientist-entrepreneur Craig Venter, will come together today after months of animosity to declare that they have separately completed working drafts of the human genetic map, laying out the 3.1 billion elements of DNA forming the molecular instruction manual of human life.

Even before the competitors announce their findings, a row is erupting over commercial rights to the genome and the need for an international pact to protect the genetic information shared by humanity. "As soon as the map is announced on Monday, the first question is 'who is going to own the genome'," Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, said. "Companies are going to be in a mad rush to locate every single gene hidden in that map. What the public isn't aware of is, as soon as those genes are isolated and located and defined, they are patented as inventions," he added.

Some scientists fear a "balkanisation" of gene patents, with companies snapping up patents with only a fragmentary idea of a gene's structure to head off the competition.

The joint announcement will be made simultaneously in Washington and London today. Celera will announce "the first assembly of the human genome" and the public consortium will unveil "a working draft of the human genome".

"This is it, this is the book of life," Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Unit, said. John Sulston, head of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, described the effort as "a project of truly biblical proportions".

Although today's glory-sharing announcement will be couched in terms of mutual admiration there is still a wide gulf between the projects. Dr Collins and HGP are committed to making all their research publicly available, while Dr Venter aims to make a profit from his $400 million (£263 million) investment by selling information to companies and academic institutions. The tension and back-biting reached such a level that President Clinton intervened. "Fix it," he scribbled in a testy note Neal Lane, his science adviser, that was obtained by Time magazine. "Make these guys work together."

If, as expected, Mr Clinton stands between Dr Venter and Dr Collins today, the symbolism will be inescapable, for the underlying disagreement over how the genetic data should be used, and made profitable, remains unresolved.

"The real money in the genome is in the drugs that will be discovered using this information... this will be a whole new industry with whole new companies," Arthur Sands, president of Lexicon Genetics Inc, one of several companies planning to exploit the information, said.

Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd

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