Gene Map Alliance Hopes Fade

By Justin Gillis (C) 2000
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2000; Page A04

Behind-the-scenes negotiations to create an alliance of public and private researchers to unravel the human genetic code all but collapsed yesterday as the two sides accused each other of manipulation and bad faith.

Newly available documents show that representatives of the National Human Genome Research Institute, the lead agency in an international campaign to map all human genes, and Celera Genomics Corp., the Rockville biotechnology company pursuing the same goal as a for-profit endeavor, have been talking since December.

The negotiators hoped to strike a deal that would merge the international Human Genome Project with Celera's efforts, producing a top-notch, virtually complete map of human genes by late this year, far earlier than the 2003 deadline the Human Genome Project set.

Such a map, a central goal of modern science, promises to speed medical research and shed light on some profound mysteries of human biology. "Humankind will be better served if we can find a viable way to join forces to produce a better product in a more timely fashion," said one negotiating document.

But the effort appears to have foundered over sharp disagreements about commercial use of the gene database that would result from the collaboration.

What could be the final blow came yesterday, when the Wellcome Trust, a large British charity heavily involved in financing gene research and long suspicious of Celera's efforts, released a copy of a letter from public negotiators to J. Craig Venter, Celera's president and chief scientific officer.

The letter, dated Feb. 28 and marked "confidential," outlines difficulties in the negotiations and sets a deadline of today for Venter to alter his positions. In a telephone interview, Venter said he interpreted release of the letter the day before the deadline as an effort to pressure him.

"I'm sort of disgusted that they would send us this threatening 'confidential' letter with a time deadline on it, then fax it to the press," Venter said. "I don't even know what to make of it. It's such a low-life thing to do."

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and principal author of the letter, said he played no role in releasing it and learned the Wellcome Trust was about to do so while visiting his parents over the weekend. He added, however, that negotiations with Celera have been disappointing, and barring some unexpected breakthrough, a public-private collaboration to map the genetic code is now unlikely.

"This was not set up to fail," Collins said of the months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. "This was set up to succeed. It was disappointing, to be honest, that it didn't turn out that way. I went way out on a limb to try to convince some of the more reluctant parties that this was worth pursuing."

In the letter, Collins said a prime issue was Celera's desire for restrictions on commercial use of the genome database. Celera is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on gene research and has become a Wall Street darling because of its perceived lead over other biotech companies.

Venter said his company supports the goal of completing the gene map rapidly but is concerned that research it paid for will be available for other companies to repackage and sell.

According to the letter, public researchers were amenable to some restrictions for a brief period, perhaps six to 12 months. But the letter said Celera wanted the restrictions to run as late as 2005, which Collins said would hurt other biotech companies pursuing disease research.

Celera has long said that, with or without the cooperation of public researchers, it would combine its private research with public databases to produce a complete, publicly available gene map this year. Venter reiterated that plan yesterday. But without a cooperative arrangement, there are certain to be continuing arguments about who gets credit for the work and about the quality of the resulting database.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company