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Celera Adds UK Academics to its Discount List, But Will New Public Data Make CDS Obsolete?

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Celera Genomics’ agreement with the UK’s Medical Research Council to grant UK researchers discounted subscription rates to its database is the latest in a series of negotiations the company has undertaken recently to expand its academic customer base.

Following on similar deals with the US National Cancer Institute [BioInform 07-16-01] and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [BioInform 01-28-02], Celera’s announcement on January 31 that it had reached an agreement with the MRC came as no surprise.

The agreement was notable, however, in light of the MRC’s historic partnership with the UK’s Wellcome Trust in its support of public data. The two organizations jointly fund a number of genomic research projects, including a genome helpdesk at the European Bioinformatics Institute, home of the publicly available Ensembl genome browser. But while the Wellcome Trust staunchly prohibits researchers from using its funds to subscribe to Celera’s data, an MRC spokeswoman said, “a small handful of researchers who are at the cutting edge of genomics … asked the MRC to look into administering a subscription on their behalf.”

The spokeswoman declined to identify the research groups who make up this consortium of scientists. However, Ian Viney, program manager of the MRC’s molecular and cellular medicine board, noted in an e-mail to BioInform that, “The subscription, although discounted, is still substantial. … This leaves a handful of researchers that can justify the expense of a subscription to Celera, even at a discounted rate.”

The agreement is open to all UK scientists, independent of their funding source. Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed, although both the NCI and the CIHR deals give academic subscribers access to CDS at a rate of approximately $12,000 per researcher.

“We stress to all researchers that they should use the public database as their first point of call,” noted Viney. In addition, according to the policy posted on the MRC website, “Applicants will need to demonstrate unequivocally that the costs are justified and that the data is not available in any reasonable format in the public domain.”

The Wellcome Trust, meanwhile, has reiterated its policy. “If they decide to use Celera they can, but with their own money,” said a Wellcome Trust spokesperson.

 

Enter the Mouse

 

The assembled and annotated mouse genome has given Celera undeniable bargaining power since it began sequencing the mouse in April 2000. Researchers who benefited from the subscription deals negotiated through the NCI and the CIHR cited access to mouse as their primary reason for demanding access to the company’s database.

Likewise, the MRC said it began discussing an access agreement to Celera’s data “in the light of an announcement that Celera had finished a draft of the mouse genome sequence” in February 2001.

But even as Celera’s press release about the MRC agreement crossed the wires just over a week ago, Ensembl quietly released the public version of the mouse assembly at www.ensembl.org/Mus_musculus. With the mouse genome now unabashedly in the public domain, will academic researchers be able to justify forking over a good portion of their grants for Celera’s data?

According to Viney, yes. Both the public and the Celera sequences are draft, he noted, adding that important differences would appear between the two because “no two groups would have the same gaps in their draft.” In addition, he pointed out, Celera has sequenced different strains (three strains plus a substrain: 129X1/SvJ, DBA/2J, A/J and 129S1/SvlmJ), while the public effort has focused on a single strain of its own (C57BL/6J or “Black 6”) — differences that will be useful for mapping disease genes and engineering new mouse models of human disease.

However, Viney added, “This information may only be justified as essential for a small number of researchers.”

Additionally, with its substantial head start, Celera’s mouse data is of much better quality. “We’re aware that we’re probably not as good as Celera yet,” admitted Ewan Birney, who leads the Ensembl project at the EBI. But, he noted, the next assembly is falling into place rapidly and will be vastly improved by the next release, expected in around three months.

In addition, Birney said, the Fugu genome is due out on Ensembl soon, and the resource intends to continue its “commitment to handle all the vertebrate genomes.”

Celera, on the other hand, has not disclosed its future plans for adding new genomes to CDS as they come online. The ramp-up in the public sequencing efforts has coincided with Celera’s shift away from the sequencing and database business and toward discovery, raising questions about the company’s ability and desire to support additional genomes.

The company is partnering with the public consortium sequencing the rat genome, but it remains unclear whether it will release the data through CDS.

It’s likely that Celera’s aggressive push toward discovery will hinder further investment in an extended data business. In a conference call to discuss the company’s second-quarter 2002 earnings, Applera CEO Tony White said the company would remain “prudent” with regard to its online business as it realigns to tackle therapeutics. While noting that Celera’s investment in CDS will remain “close to plan,” White did not provide further details about the company’s plans for the online business.

A Celera spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.


 

— JK and BT

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