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THE GW INTERVIEW: Venter the Philanthropist Talks About His New Foundations and the Future of Genomics

NEW YORK, April 30 - Three months after being shown the door at Celera Genomics, Craig Venter has responded with a pair of nonprofit foundations that he hopes will educate individuals, and especially legislators, about the potential rewards and risks behind the human genome.

One foundation, a think tank called the TIGR Center for the Advancement of Genomics, seeks to help realize what Venter has been talking about whenever he gets the chance: the need for legislation that outlaws genetic discrimination. The second foundation, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, will look to biology for solutions to, say, global warming and agriculture. Venter will oversee both as president and chairman.

 

The foundations, which formally opened last Thursday but were unveiled this morning, are, as Venter puts it, "on the leading edge of science and policy." And as a full-page ad in this week's Science says, they're looking for a few good people.

 

GenomeWeb caught up with the former Celera head in a phone interview.

 

GenomeWeb: What are some of the challenges that genomic research faces now, whether scientific or ethical?

 

Craig Venter: My view on all the scientific promise that genomics has to offer the world won't be realized unless we deal upfront with some of these ethical issues such as genetic discrimination. And if the US government doesn't pass that bill blocking genetic discrimination from employers and health insurers, then it's really going to create a road block from getting new discoveries made. [The bill, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-NY), seeks to ban genetic discrimination in employment and insurance.]

 

I think right now people are sort of locked in a transition phase and I think they are rebuilding as they're trying to understand genomics. The message of the smaller genes and the complexity made it far more complicated for everybody. The simplistic notion of ... one gene, one protein, one drug, or one gene, one protein, one disease was clearly a very, very long way from reality.

 

So I think whether it's the biotech industry or just basic research or government research, it's all starting at a new level dealing with the orders of complexity we're dealing with.

 

GW: How long have you thought about creating these foundations?

 

CV: This was not an epiphany last week. It's something I've been thinking about for years. I had to wait till I had the opportunity and the resources to do this. Sequencing the human genome was obviously a very key step in all of this. Even though it would not have been my choice to go into business I'm certainly grateful to those people who put up the money to sequence the genome.

 

GW: Will either of the foundations be focused on lab-based research or are they both think tanks in the intellectual, observational, and analytical sense?

 

CV: The energy institute is a lab-based institute. And the policy center will, in fact, be doing research, but we won't be doing labs here. Rather, we'll do it either through the energy institute or through TIGR. We'll be looking at polymorphic differences and the genetic code as they relate to some of these issues.

 

GW: What was the source of the seed money that got the foundations off the ground?

 

CV: It came from the TIGR endowment, and the TIGR endowment came from stock from Human Genome Sciences and from Celera that I made possible.

 

GW: How will the foundations be financed when the seed money starts to run dry?

 

CV: The policy center might be continued to be funded long term from that endowment. I want to make sure it's always independent and that I am free to speak openly on issues without worrying about a constituency of people who control the purse strings.

 

GW: Do you expect any of your old friends from Celera to pitch their resumes to you?

 

CV: I'm always looking forward to working with some of the colleagues I've worked with for a very long time.

 

GW: What's a typical day for you like now?

 

CV: It's much more peaceful.

 

GW: What does that mean?

 

CV: It means I spend my time on intellectual pursuits instead of walking around with a fire hose and a hatchet.

 

GW: You feel a lot of weight off your shoulders then?

 

CV: A lot of uncomfortable weight. Managing a thousand people when you don't really have control over the direction is not an enjoyable task.

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