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SNP Consortium Conductor Eyes Protein Project

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Alan Williamson is one of those people whose presence is often felt but rarely seen. Though Arthur Holden is sometimes credited with pulling the SNP Consortium together, it was Williamson’s behind-the-scenes work that got the project off the ground. Which is why, when he talks, the industry listens.

As an executive at Merck for 10 years, Williamson probably seemed an unlikely candidate to support free public data. But that’s exactly what he did — and what he’s been doing ever since. “I started my involvement in public-private partnerships by initiating the Merck project to put human ESTs in the public domain,” he says.

The idea was widely accepted within the company, he believes, because ESTs are so far removed from drug targets that they’re considered pre-competitive. Since pharmas rely heavily on outside data for their basic research information, “the best way to stimulate that is to make sure the basic things such as ESTs and SNPs are available to all the world’s researchers without strings attached,” Williamson says. “Completely, freely, publicly available so that pharmas can then compete to make drugs.”

That dogma led to the SNP Consortium, which Williamson organized after getting involved with SNP research as an advisor to NHGRI. “I initiated the idea and brought the thing together in the first place,” he acknowledges. Acting as facilitator, he invited a number of companies to talk about generating a SNP map as a piece of pre-competitive research. The pharmaceutical companies were eager to fund the project and asked Williamson to stick around as chair during the interim, after which he helped recruit Arthur Holden to head up the project.

With his track record for success, Williamson’s next crusade was chosen for him. “A number of pharma companies approached me this time,” he says. The companies would like to see more pre-competitive data for protein structures, and they’re willing to pay for it. Again, the luminary agreed to facilitate the effort. “What would be very helpful to everyone would be to have a cross-section of the families of proteins solved at the three-dimensional level,” he says. “If you had a representative member for each family, then for any particular protein that came up as a potential target, it would be a lot easier to find its structure based on the known [family] structure.” The goal is to have a substantially higher number of proteins solved and put in the public domain each year.

He’s been shopping the idea around and is extending an open invitation to companies interested in joining the project. His plan, for three years of scaled-up protein studies with funding of a million pounds a year per member organization, awaits approval from senior management at 10 companies plus the Wellcome Trust. Though the companies are a mix of American and European, the plan is for the proteome production work to be done in the UK with crystallography to take place at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.

Williamson expects to hear in the next few months whether the companies approve the plan. If history is any indicator, there shouldn’t be much suspense.

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