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War on Terror May Set Back Hap Map; NHGRI Looks to Private Sector for Help

BETHESDA, Md., Feb. 11 - Massive shifts in federal research priorities brought on by the war on terrorism could delay the completion of the proposed haplotype map upon which many genomics companies are hedging their bets, according to government scientific officials and advisors.

 

President George W. Bush's Fiscal 2003 budget calls for an eight percent increase in spending on the National Human Genome Research Institute next year, far leaner than what planners were expecting before Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks that followed.

 

In a meeting here on Monday, officials said that the proposed slowing in spending increases could hamper a planned ramp-up in the institute's $100 million haplotype map effort.

 

If approved by Congress this fall, the budget could hamper those firms that are poised to provide the computing platforms and analysis technology needed to perform comparative genomics-based disease studies.

 

Pressed by a need to respond to the nation's ongoing terrorism threat, Bush last week released a 2003 budget proposing $4.3 billion in antibioterrorism spending. The budget also calls for a 14.7 percent overall funding increase at the US National Institutes of Health, putting the agency on course for a scheduled doubling of its budget between 1998 and 2003.

 

But changing national priorities since Sept. 11 shifted a large chunk of NIH's proposed increase toward antiterrorism efforts. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, led by Bush bioterrorism advisor Anthony S. Fauci, is slated to receive a 60 percent shot in the arm to its $2.5 billion 2002 budget to develop drugs and vaccines against smallpox, anthrax, and other potential bioweapons. 

 

That increase could come largely at the expense of other NIH institutes, including NHGRI. Bush's budget asks Congress to send the institute $467 million next year, $36 million more than it will receive in 2002. That eight percent increase is just over half what NHGRI planners had counted on as they begun planning for a large expansion of their haplotype map program.

 

The project is viewed by many NHGRI officials as the institute's next major mission after the scheduled completion of the reference human genome sequence next spring.

 

"It will make a difference in how fast they can ramp up," NHGRI director Francis Collins told GenomeWeb.

 

Collins' agency is embarking on a two-year, $100 million effort requiring the analysis of some 120 genotypes. Officials want the map eventually to contain some 600,000 "informative" SNPs, Collins told members of NHGRI's National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research at the meeting here.

 

But the money is already "vastly more than we have available" even without the proposed pullback in NHGRI funding, he conceded. The institute is now looking to other NIH agencies as well as to private firms for financial help in keeping the haplotype map project on track.

 

A delay in the map is unlikely to affect many pharmaceutical companies, most of which have yet to make the infrastructure investments needed to use it for therapy development, according to Robert Tepper, a committee member and chief scientific officer at Millennium Pharmaceuticals.

 

But "companies focused on technologies and platforms will want it faster than those doing drug development," he said.

 

Still, Collins warned that it remains to be seen exactly how much money lawmakers will ultimately send his way or whether the funds will hamstring the hap map's progress.

 

"Who knows by the fall what we will have," he said.

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