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Databases GDB Woes in Spotlight When HSC Fires Cuticchia

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The GDB Human Genome Database has never enjoyed truly smooth sailing. But its problems worsened late last year when the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto fired GDB director Jamie Cuticchia, claiming misappropriation of the GDB domain name, which was transferred to a non-profit company in Maryland. HSC has sued Cuticchia and colleagues Connie Talbot, Gregg Silk, and Chris Porter; Silk and Porter have also been fired. Cuticchia contends that the hospital had granted permission for the transfer.

The GDB has had its share of troubles since its creation in 1990. Initially hosted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it received funding from the US Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and other groups. But its grants were cut in 1998 when the DOE dropped its non-sequencing genomics projects.

Cuticchia found a way to keep the project alive at the HSC, backed with capital from IBM, Oracle, and an anonymous donor. He has raised more than $50 million in grants and contributions to support the GDB. The resource proved to be very popular, especially with companies — prompting overseers to think about developing a new version of the software that would guarantee free access to academic researchers while requiring a license from commercial users, thereby generating a revenue stream for the struggling effort.

According to Cuticchia, HSC considered this redevelopment, but decided it would be “inappropriate” to commercialize the free database. (Cuticchia says the hospital then granted him the authority to pursue the effort on his own, but HSC spokeswoman Cyndy DeGiusti says that’s “a fiction.”)

Adding to the complexity of the already messy situation is the fact that neither the HSC nor the GDB holds rights to the database — those were kept by the US government. So far, GDB staff members have met with the legal team at Johns Hopkins, where database curation currently takes place, to discuss options for moving the main node from the HSC to the computational biology group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, current host of the US mirror node.

It is expected that funding for the GDB at its new home will continue to come from the existing budget, using the $50 million Cuticchia raised.

— Kirell Lakhman and Bernadette Toner

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