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Public-Private Relations

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A year ago this month, the face-off between public and private sector scientists was widespread news. Human genomes were published in competing journals and the dueling generals met in Washington to celebrate their sequencing success. (Hard to believe that was just one year ago, isn’t it?) Francis Collins showed up on public television programs such as “Nova” and “The Charlie Rose Show” cast as the good-hearted government guy. Craig Venter and his team of Nerf-gun-toting bioinformatics bandits got sexy coverage in Esquire and The New Yorker. Never mind that most of his team was freshly recruited from academia and that Venter himself had spent all but the previous three years of his career working in the public sector; and never mind that many of the leaders of the public effort earn compensation of one sort or another from private-sector efforts. Genomics became known to all the world as a discipline divided between profiteers and professors.

Our two main feature stories this month are reminders that such a rift is far from reality, not to mention undesirable.

If not for the support of the University of Wisconsin, our cover model John Devereux, an accidental entrepreneur if ever there was one, could not have launched the ubiquitous GCG software package and moved on to the job of CEO of the world’s first bioinformatics company.

David Clemmer, whose IMS-TOF instrument is among the “Emerging, Amazing, Beyond-Belief Genomic Technologies” featured in the section starting on p. 45, is an earnest academic who made department chair at the age of 36 and whose heroes are other academic inventors. Yet he acknowledges that it will likely be his involvement with the startup Beyond Genomics that will enable his current invention to reach its full potential: “When you work in academics you think about things differently. I like the aggressive way you can think about things with a startup. I’ve learned a lot from the start-up world,” Clemmer says.

Even after an auspicious 20-year university career, Tufts’ David Walt considers his latest contribution to the private sector to be among his most important. Of his invention that is now the technological anchor of Illumina, a company he helps direct, he says, “It’s very gratifying to see something evolve through a lot of hard work and student contributions into something that has significant practical application and commercial potential.” What’s more, he adds, “It’s nice to have been responsible for creating [close to 200] jobs in a thriving company that has every indication that it’s going to grow and have a real impact on the field of diagnostics and anything that has to do with high-throughput gene screening. Absolutely very gratifying.”

Accounts like theirs indicate that it’s not a majority that relates to the notion of a private-public competition. In fact, according to what Nat Goodman reports in his Happy Birthday Human Genome tribute on p.54, it looks as though even the old rivals have thrown in the towel: the mouse and pufferfish sequencing projects now underway are both public-private collaborative efforts, and in one Celera is teamed up with the US government.

Adrienne J. Burke, Editor in Chief

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