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Rejuvenated Battle Between Celera and HGP Rouses Novel Ethical Dilemmas

NEW YORK, March 6 - Celera Genomics has rolled up its sleeves. But the renewed public battle between it and the Human Genome Project may have complex ethical implications that might shape the future of genomic research.


After having its controversial human-genome effort criticized in a recent article by HGP scientists, Celera is eager to offer snippets of its counterargument, set to run in the March 19 print edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  


In a nutshell, Celera claims (and not for the first time), that it did not use the public assembly data to reconstruct their sequence information. The company also said that the authors of the article, on display since Tuesday in the journal's online edition, picked an anomalous and unrepresentative sequence of chromosome 22 to illustrate their point.


And besides, Celera points out that subscriptions to its human and mouse databases are strong despite an annual fee that ranges from $8,000 for academic researchers to $1.8 million for big pharmaceutical licenses. Sales are good--which, Celera says, proves that researchers are voting with their feet.


So is this merely an exhumation of a high-profile, high-brow grudge match? Is all this ink just an nasty little squabble over personal pride and a Nobel prize in the balance?


Not entirely. Many genomic scientists say that this quarrel, despite its prickliness, raises issues that will shape the future of genomic science. The very public fight also presents scientists with a novel set of technical questions: What is the best approach to sequence a bacteria, a plant, or a mammal? What's the smartest tradeoff between speed, cost, and accuracy?


"If you take away the rhetoric and the italics, there are some legitimate questions that need to be asked," said Geoffrey Duyk, chief scientific officer at Exelixis.  "Large-scale genomic sequencing is our equivalent of the Hubble telescope or the supercollider. Technological issues that impact the cost and the quality of the project raise questions that need to be answered."


And beneath the harsh words, there are also larger philosophical issues about the ownership of data, the fight over patent protections, and the new roles of private and public science in a field increasingly defined by the struggle for cash. 


"To generate this level of passion and attention, it has to be more than just the simple technical issues of how the genome was assembled," said Joe Nadeau, the interim chair of the genetics department at Case Western Reserve University.


Nadeau, who was a co-author on the Celera's Science paper, said that part of the acrimony can be traced to unresolved concerns over credit--and about the rivalry between private and public science. "There is a sensitivity on the public side, that their public information--which they were obligated to make public--was used unfairly for Celera's private profit," he said. "Some people have a lot of trouble with that."


The ongoing dispute also touches on one of the most deeply cherished principles in science: the commitment to full, open access to data. By refusing to make its sequence data fully public when it published its landmark paper just over one year ago, Celera infuriated many researchers who believe that data are the bedrock of the scientific process.


That argument will probably soon erupt in a new form. Celera has been making rapid progress on the mouse genome, but publishing the sequence will confront the company with the same dilemma: Should it publish the full information or limit access in order to protect its product (and its bottom line) and risk the wrath of many peers and public-sector scientists?


These fundamental conflicts aren't likely to be resolved any time soon. But that's not necessarily such a bad thing, say some observers.


"We shouldn't be throwing gas on this fire," said Duyk. "But if we can somehow focus on the real issues here, these are legitimate questions that the sequencing community needs to ask itself. The language deflects from some core issues--What is the current state of the art, and how does it generate drafts, completed sequences? Self-criticism is an important part of science. We shouldn't lose sight of that."

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