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IN DEPTH: The NCI Subscription Deal with Celera

NEW YORK, July 11 – In the often-contentious world of private versus public genomic initiatives, everybody appears to be happy about the National Cancer Institute’s subscription agreement with Celera Genomics.

The deal, which allows individual NCI principal investigators to use lab budgets to access the data and tools in the Celera Discovery System and mouse and SNP datasets, was six months in the making, according to sources at NCI and Celera. The agreement was announced on Monday. 

“For scientists, the more access to data, the happier they are,” summed up Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research and a key player in the licensing deal. 

NCI scientists who wanted access to data not found in the public sector pushed the subscription initiative forward, according to Gottesman and others. As a result, NCI sent out a request to private companies asking for information about their database licensing. While Celera appears to be the fastest company to have responded, Gottesman said NCI would consider subscription offers from other companies with useful databases.

The Celera-NCI agreement is outlined in a twenty-page “memorandum of understanding” that allows government scientists within the NCI to purchase a one-year database subscription. For the first 45 principal investigators, the cost for access to the Discovery System is $12,222. Prices drop incrementally with additional blocks of PIs signing up, falling to a minimum of $7,000 should 101 or more NCI investigators sign up. The subscription rate is for each PI and three additional users within his or her lab. Beyond that fee, up to 22 additional users in the person’s lab can get access for $500 each.

While the total pool of NCI PIs eligible to get a subscription is about 400, according to Craig Hyde, a special assistant to the director for the NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, officials expect only “a handful” to subscribe.

 “It’s a specialized need,” explained Gottesman.

The deal, similar to subscription agreements Celera has with academic institutions, also offers individuals access to Celera’s SNP reference data and the assembled and annotated mouse genome data. The cost per investigator for each dataset is $4,000.

Both the financial services community and Celera expressed that the NCI agreement was a validation of Celera’s methods and data. 

Soon after the agreement was announced, Banc of America Securities analyst James Reddoch issued an advisory touting the deal as validation of the “differentiation and quality” of Celera’s genome database.

“Using our data and tools is an endorsement of the good scientific work going on at Celera,” Jason Mollé, senior vice president of sales and marketing and Celera’s point person for the deal, said of the NCI agreement.

Stephen O’Brien, chief of the NCI’s laboratory of genomic diversity, agreed that it was a validation of sorts. “Everybody seems so afraid that they [Celera] might claim something, but they invested a lot of money and started the competition four years ago. In some ways, it’s a validation of the American way, which is to start competition.”

“I’m ecstatic, I want to see what’s there,” said an NCI scientist who asked for anonymity. “My collaborators and competitors, Howard Hughes, Johns Hopkins, and others, have access to that information,” the source added, anticipating the opportunity to soon review the data. “I’m sure there’s data there not in the public domain,” especially with SNPs and the mouse genome. “To me, it’s worth the approximate $15,000 to $20,000” for access.

The scientist added that a subscription to the Celera data would give researchers the opportunity to compare the public and private data.

Academic researchers outside NCI also viewed the subscription agreement as positive.

“Judging from what people are saying, Celera gives bench biologists a user-friendly interface to get into the data,” said Sean Eddy, associate professor of genetics at the Washington University School of Medicine and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute assistant investigator. 

Eddy also believes the subscription makes financial sense: “Delivering the data and making it useful takes a lot of software development,” said Eddy. “It’s not the role of the NIH for funding commercial-quality software products. It’s probably cost-effective for private companies to develop the software and public institutions to license it.”

How many NCI scientists sign up for a subscription remains to be seen, of course. But the agreement, which applies only to NCI, will make it easier for other government institutions to sign a subscription deal, acknowledged Celera and NCI officials. 

To that end, Celera is in “active discussions” with approximately four other NIH agencies for subscription agreements, said Celera’s Mollé. 

How much these agreements and any subscriptions stemming from them may be worth to Celera, besides possibly bragging rights, is a matter of speculation, however. Mollé would not reveal the percentage of revenue generated via academic subscriptions compared to fees from private companies accessing Celera’s Discovery System and other datasets.

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