ROCKVILLE, Md.--Officials at Celera Genomics told BioInform they were unsure what prompted a flurry of media reports last week that suggested the company is negotiating a sequencing partnership with the US National Human Genome Research Institute. Under the headline, "Talk of Collaboration on Decoding of the Genome," The New York Times reported on November 14 that members of Celera’s scientific advisory board, concerned that the US National Institutes of Health could "be humiliated" and suffer budget cuts if Celera beat it to the Human Genome Project finish line, were advocating a partnership between the public and private sequencing efforts. One industry observer accused Celera of spinning the story to get NHGRI to concede defeat. But a Celera insider said his jaw dropped when he read the remarks. He noted, however, that the idea of a partnership is nothing new. Before Celera was ever established, he said, its executives made attempts to coordinate their efforts with NIH. Last year, NIH and the Wellcome Trust objected to an agreement that was about to be signed between the US Department of Energy and Celera.
The Times article, which triggered similar reports during the week by the Associated Press and Wired News, also reported that sequencing scientists had encountered a "new technical twist" as "large parts of the genome are turning out to be essentially undecodable."
Paul Gilman, Celera’s director of policy planning, told BioInform that the article contained several mischaracterizations. For one, he said, no formal talks are taking place that would bring about a Celera/NHGRI collaboration. "There are a lot of people who would like to see it happen, and we’ve been willing to discuss it from the start, but there’s not anything concrete on the table," Gilman said.
Asked why Celera might be interested in teaming up with the public sequencing effort, Gilman explained that, although Celera already feeds publicly generated data into its sequence assembler, "a more formal collaboration" could be more efficient. "We have to do some special treatment to public data to have it reach the quality standard we need for our approach. It would be more productive to be able to inform them as to what would be useful so our assembler could assemble it. To work together on annotation and curation of the data would be useful too."
Gilman added that getting the genome done more quickly would allow Celera to "get on to the rest of our business, giving customers the kinds of software tools they need, giving them the annotation curation--the real value-added that we hope to provide to our database."
As for reports that parts of the genome are turning out to be undecodable, Gilman said this is nothing new. The Times article was likely referring to heterochromatin, the highly repetitive elements around centromeres and telomeres, that cannot be cloned for sequencing. Indeed, scientists have not been able to sequence those pieces in yeast, C. elegans, or Drosophila, and have never expected to be able to sequence them in the human genome.
Celera officials also took issue with recent characterizations in the press of its gene patenting activities. Late last month, when the company announced it had filed for provisional patent applications to protect 6,500 of its discoveries the company was accused of reneging on its promise to make sequence data public. "Patent applications do not preclude anyone from undertaking basic research," remarked a Celera official, who argued that gene patents could actually advance commercial research by assuring pharmaceutical companies that they can license the discoveries they wish to pursue.
"Our intent has been to broadly license any intellectual property we have, not tie it up," said the official. "We’re not going to become a pharmaceutical company."