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Japan Opens New Genomics Center

TOKYO, May 11 - Japan’s National Cancer Center has opened a new genomics center as part of the government’s five-year Millennium Genome Project, aimed at relieving the social burdens expected from Japan’s rapidly aging society.

With its 11 ABI Prism 3700 and MegaBACE 1000 sequencers, the center can process two megabases of genomic data per day and runs regularly at full capacity. Using this data, the researchers are focusing in on what SNPs influence protein function. Future areas of emphasis include SNPs that influence gene expression and large-scale sequence clarification of some of the as-yet fuzzy areas of the genome. Scientists at the center claim to have already found 30 new genes.

The center, which celebrated its opening on Thursday, is also employing Affymetrix GeneChips in its gene expression analysis work.

Researchers, who work on three floors designated for gene expression analysis, genotyping, and sequencing, will focus on stomach cancer, which until recently led cancer deaths in Japan, and the hard-to-cure pancreatic cancer. In addition, the center will partner with the RIKEN Institute as well as with universities and public institutions across the country to study cancer and other diseases selected by the Millennium Genome Project, such as dementia, diabetes, and heart disease.

Currently there are no plans for international collaborative projects, although there is a
possibility that the center will look to “places like Celera Genomics” in the future for database purchasing agreements or joint researcher, according to Teruhiko Yoshida, head of the center’s genetics division.

One of the major goals of the Millennium Project is the comprehensive SNPs analysis of a handful of diseases. And the center's genotyping project is expected to start in the fall. Yoshida estimates that the institute will have to study the incidence of some 100,000 SNPs in 1,500 people in order to find disease susceptibility genes by the end of 2004, when the Millennium Project's initial funding of is scheduled to run out. The Center for Medical Genomics is planning to have the capacity to finish half of the total necessary, Yoshida said.

The idea for the center stemmed, in part, from worries that researchers in Europe and the United States would snap up all the patents, leaving Japan out of the market. And while registering the center’s discoveries remains a priority, Yoshida said he did not expect issues of IP rights in these collaborative and government-funded projects is not likely to become a problem at this early stage.

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