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What Should NHGRI Do Next?180 Experts Chime In

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By Adrienne Burke

As genomics meetings go, Beyond the Beginning: The Future of Genomics — a two-night retreat held by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Warrenton, Va., in November — was one for the history books. Its outcome will be a report that, pending approval by the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research next month, will outline for the genomics community how NHGRI sees its mission once the Human Genome Project is completed.

The document, to be published in a scientific journal this April, will not only guide the future of genomic research funding, but should reflect the thinking of many of the US’s leading genomic minds about where the field should be headed and what its most pressing needs are.

NHGRI director Francis Collins describes the mid-November gathering as a “remarkable assembly of scientific intellect” and perhaps the most important genomics meeting since the late 1980s. With a roster that read like a Who’s Who of the genome universe, this was the finale in a year-long series of powwows designed to get stakeholders’ input into the institute’s post-genome-publication priority-setting process.

Among the 180 in attendance were the usual public-sector suspects — Ewan Birney, David Botstein, Richard Gibbs, David Haussler, Eric Lander, Marco Marra, Richard Myers, Maynard Olson — and more than a few industry heavyweights: Arthur Holden (First Genetic Trust), Michael Hunkapiller (ABI), Brad Margus (Perlegen), Allen Roses (GSK), Elliott Sigal (BMS), and Bob Tepper (Millennium).

Several new faces at the genomics planning table hinted at how the stakeholders group is expanding: professors of anesthesiology, ethics, genetics, pediatrics, physics, the politics of human reproduction, and psychiatry, as well as the commissioner of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, were in attendance.

Considering the diversity of interests represented, it’s surprising that the group was able to accomplish anything at all, but NHGRI organizers expressed delight with what transpired: The group “ripped to shreds” the NHGRI staff’s draft document (sent to participants a week earlier), deemed inadequate a “three-pillar” metaphor that organized NHGRI’s interests into three columns — biology, health, and society — proposing instead a better integrated three-story-building-like architecture, and pounded the table to get more attention dedicated to key infrastructure areas such as bioinformatics.

Collins says the group put forth some “wonderful advice” and engaged in heated debate while respecting his rule that anyone promoting his or her own interests would be “gonged” and told to take a seat.

“The genomics family jumps up and down and screams at each other, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as a bad thing,” says Eric Green, NHGRI’s director for intramural research, who describes the meeting’s mood as “constructively friendly.”

Arthur Holden lauds Collins’ team for including a broad cross-section of interests and says the collaborative priority-setting process was effective: “Some of the most critical needs out there have to do with the infrastructure and IT. The output was very constructive in terms of insuring that critical areas got addressed.”

“This was politics of a relatively high order,” says self-described newcomer Roger Brent, president of the Molecular Sciences Institute. “The result of the input from the interested parties certainly produced a better plan than the draft, so I attended and participated in a political process that to a large extent worked.” As for any jumping up and down, Brent was unfazed: “We’re not talking the Democratic Party convention of 1968.”

According to Collins, several topics emerged as new priorities for NHGRI. Among them: focus on understanding biological function; interact more with clinical research to push genomics into the medical arena; and pursue an understanding of the genetics of good health as well as the genetics of disease, an approach championed by Maynard Olson.

In the end, Green says the planning document will reflect “a serious commitment by NHGRI to apply genomics to improving human health.” And while it won’t itemize specific grants, Collins says it “will have large significance for how we set our [funding] priorities.” He adds, “Anybody who is coming to us after that point with research proposals would be well advised to look at the document to see where we’ve placed our emphasis.”