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Recommendations for GTL to Uproot R&D Plan Could Trigger Cuts in Tech Spending

NEW YORK, March 10 (GenomeWeb News) - Recent recommendations by the National Research Council that the Department of Energy's Genomes: GTL program fundamentally change its R&D strategies could lead to cuts in technology spending and change the way tool vendors interact with the program, according to people familiar with the recommendations.


"We're recommending a biology-oriented, programmatic approach rather than just building large-scale facilities around innovative technologies," said Charles Cantor, chief science officer at Sequenom and one of 12 co-authors of a report outlining the recommendations. "It's safe to assume that the investment in technologies probably doesn't have to be as large as DOE had previously projected."


He said GTL doesn't break down its tech-spending habits. When asked how much he thought GTL should spend to implement the recommendations, Cantor said GTL would either have to find additional funding or reallocate existing resources.


"What we proposed is so different from what GTL was doing that ... even if they adore our suggestion the burden now is [on GTL] to come back with a hard-nosed plan with budgets and milestones," Cantor told GenomeWeb News this week.


Currently, GTL envisions creating four separate facilities devoted to specific genomic-related technologies: protein production, biomolecular imaging, proteomics, and systems biology. According to the NRC report, this plan would take 24 years "to reach full capabilities." Instead, the NRC report, which is not binding, recommends building four vertically integrated facilities in which the four original disciplines would look for applications for tasks already identified as GTL targets.


It is a fundamental shift in strategy that "took [DOE] by surprise," said Cantor, who is the only private-sector author of the 95-page report. The report, released Feb. 21, can be seen here.


David Kingsbury of the Gordon & Betty MooreFoundation and a report co-coauthor said since GTL has already approved the creation of the protein-production center, the recommendations would represent a "mid-course correction." But he added "it's not too late" for such changes.


David Thomassen, acting director of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research at DOE, which oversees the GTL program, said he expects to publicly address the recommendations by the end of next week. He noted that the NRC report is "just a review."


If the DOE accepts the NRC's recommendations, GTL's four centers would be reconfigured to focus specifically on energy alternatives, legacy waste solutions, and carbon-sequestration.


Tool vendors, academic labs, and nonprofits doing large-scale protein production, protein characterization, and reagents production would be the most likely contributors to these centers, said Cantor.


As for genomic work inherent to the GTL program, Cantor suggested it could continue to "be handled in [the Joint Genome Institute] in [a] DOE framework, where it's functioning well."


For microarrays, "to the extent there is array work, [GTL will still need] custom arrays. If there is outsourcing there, it would be with companies like Nimblegen and others that have custom arrays and have a service business," said Cantor. He said he didn't expect Sequenom, which has a gene-expression and mass-array business but not a microarray business, to be a large player.


Tom Riley, vice president of proteomics business development at Waters, noted that his company stood to play a large role in the original GTL model, and expects to benefit from the new model if it is introduced. "I don't believe that this proposal will necessarily have a negative impact on the potential to sell analytical instrumentation into the DOE Genomics: GTL Program," he said. "In fact, it may actually improve and provide a more sustainable business opportunity."


Kingsbury said if GTL adopts the NRC's recommendations it would have industry-wide benefits by keeping the program dynamic and timely. "There is an opportunity for a broader number of vendors to be engaged early on," he said. "From sequencing to protein production to imagery and mass spectrometry, there is a lot of potential. DOE will be making an investment and making sure they stay state-of-the-art."

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