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New Venter Center Will Likely Be a Boon for Overall Genome Sequencing

NEW YORK, Aug. 15 - The new gene-sequencing center being build by Craig Venter's three nonprofit ventures will likely spur overall genome research and foster greater innovation, according to officials from competing nonprofit genome-research groups.


Yesterday, the Institute for Genomic Research, the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, and the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives announced plans to build a new high-throughput genome-sequencing center whose goal will be to sequence a human genome in a fraction of the time it currently takes.


The new Venter center, which doesn't yet have a name, will also set out to nurture new genomic technology--such as the gene-analysis tool being developed by U.S. Genomics--that might help bring down the cost of analyzing an entire human genome to as little as $2,000.


Venter said his nonprofits will retrofit an existing molecular-biology facility in Rockville, Md., to accommodate an amassment of automated DNA-sequencing tools, supercomputers, networking platforms, and data-storage units the new sequencing center will need, according to a spokeswoman for IBEA and TCAG.


The former Celera head has narrowed his choice to a pair of 40,000-square-foot facilities near TIGR in Rockville and hopes to pick one in time to have it operational before the end of the year, the spokeswoman, Heather Kowalski, told GenomeWeb. The new center, which will be mostly automated, will keep a staff of about 100 people, she added.


Venter has not yet decided which gene-sequencing technologies will be used in the new space, but Kowalski said he has narrowed his choice to tools made by Applied Biosystems and Amersham Biosciences.


The decision by Venter to focus so intently on gene sequencing appears to buck the current trend of pulling back funding for such projects. Indeed, money set aside by the National Human Genome Research Institute is predicted to remain flat over the next several years as the center settles onto a new course, according to Chad Nusbaum, co-director of genome sequencing and analysis at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research.


"The budget coming out of funding agencies [for sequencing] is not going up. [That's the] message from NHGRI," Nusbaum told GenomeWeb in a recent interview. The NHGRI currently allocates around $155 million per year on sequencing projects.


The Venter center, meanwhile, plans to spend at least $20 million a year to conduct genome-sequencing projects and to nourish promising new technology. He's already found one in GeneEngine, a novel gene-analysis tool made by U.S. Genomics.

Venter, for his part, has already joined U.S. Genomics' board and will be the company's scientific advisor--the first such gig in the private sector Venter has had since he split from Celera.


"Our goal is to build a new and unique sequencing facility that can deal with the large number of organisms to be sequenced, and can further analyze those genomes already completed," Venter said of his center, which will be supported mainly by the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation.


Compete and conquer


Unlike the data compiled by Celera, which Venter founded and ran until he left in January, data harvested by his new nonprofit will be freely available to all researchers. And like other nonprofits, the new Venter center will compete for federal research dollars with other nonprofits and academic labs that perform similar research--coincidentally those same labs with whom Celera originally sparred during the first-draft sequence of the human genome.


Officials from many of those labs, far from bracing for another round of acrimony, are embracing Venter's new endeavor and believe his track record of attracting cash and spurring innovation will eventually benefit all sequencing projects.


"I think this is a good thing," George Weinstock, co-director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine, said in an interview yesterday. "The nature of public funding process ... is how you get the best product out."


Rick Wilson, who co-directs the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine, agrees. "Competition is always good, right? Now we have to wait and see if he can deliver."


"Now that [Venter] has his nonprofit hat on maybe we'll all benefit," said Wilson, adding that his group spends more per year on sequencing projects than the $20 million Venter has budgeted for his new center.


"Everybody is interested in driving costs down and increasing throughput and things like that," said Weinstock, who said his center spends around $20 million per year on sequencing projects. "And having another player who is going to be contributing to that and allowing some of the other work to get done is a very positive development."


The Joint Genome Institute, by comparison, was given around $30 million this by the US Department of Energy for sequencing projects, according to Lawrence Livermore National Lab spokesman Charles Osolin. He added that the lab is still waiting for the 2003 budget.


Larry Thompson, an NHGRI spokesman, was less impressed with news of the new Venter center. "He's setting up a new laboratory," he told the New York Times. "Lots of companies set up new laboratories all the time."


One person who will likely feel an immediate effect is Claire Fraser, president and director of TIGR. She said the extra sequencing capacity of the new Venter center will allow TIGR to expand its own research on "a wide array of projects"--a welcome sign for the Institute's genome scientists, who have been running out of sequencing capacity since the specter of bioterror has put pressure on them to do more sequencing research.

"This new facility will allow TIGR to greatly expand its sequencing capacity and give our scientists the tools to tackle large genomes more rapidly and at a lower cost," said Fraser, who also is Venter's wife. (Separately yesterday, GenomeWeb learned that TIGR this week broke ground on a new facility that will double its current size.)

TIGR's sequencing lab, which has around 40 projects currently underway, will continue its operations until the new joint sequencing facility comes on line, Fraser said. At that point, the current TIGR sequencing facility "will undergo a metamorphosis to add a state-of-the-art capability to genome closure."


Ken Howard in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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