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Collins, Venter Celebrate, but Obstacles to Future Collaboration Remain


FRANCIS Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, and Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, seemed to put their bitter battle for the genomics limelight behind them last week when they held a joint news conference to celebrate the sequencing of the human genome.

But the smiles and handshakes might prove temporary as both parties determine when, where, and how to publish their findings.

As the public and private sides of the genomics divide prepare for future milestones -- nailing down the final version of the sequence and publishing the results -- the battle of the egos could flare up once again.

If NHGRI was feeling spiteful after Celera’s swift emergence onto the genomics scene, it could try to upstage Celera by being first to publish its findings in a scientific journal. NHGRI has already said it would make all of its data available for free. Celera, however, must still determine how it will reconcile its aim to keep some material under wraps with the journals’ demand that raw data be made accessible.

“If all the information is not available, you can’t possibly reproduce what someone has claimed in a publication,”
said an editorial advisor at a leading scientific journal, who noted that without the raw data, scientists would not be able to confirm the findings’ validity.

“If you’re not interested in making your data publicly available, don’t publish. Patent it, keep it as a trade secret. But don’t try to have your cake and eat it, too,” the advisor added.

Celera did not return several calls seeking comment. But previous experience has demonstrated that the market at least does not approve of Celera opening its books. On March 14, Celera’s stock slipped 22 percent after President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said results of the human genome mapping efforts should be freely available.

Some leaders of the government’s project said that despite the opportunity to upstage Celera, they were trying to overlook their differences of opinion and to concentrate on achieving an end result that would most benefit the scientific community.

“There are larger issues that bear upon us,” said Elbert Branscomb, director of the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. “We have to stop and think how much better the needs of mankind would be served to have these sets of data released in the best form in a joint publication.”

The two sides have promised to publish their findings by the end of the year.

Branscomb said that the joint publication of the findings would offer researchers an invaluable opportunity to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each independently produced set of data as well as the chance to evaluate the methodologies.

“Celera has to determine what the most powerful business plan is--they could determine that the value is not in the data,” Branscomb said.

Despite all of the potential for problems down the road, in the nearer term, the public and private efforts to work together seem to be continuing--at least on some level.

Ari Patrinos, the associate director of science for biology and environmental research at the Department of Energy, said that a joint conference between Celera and the government laboratories was being planned to explore future areas of research.

“All things are possible in terms of cooperation at different levels,” Patrinos said. “These are wonderful scientists on both sides who will work together individually and collectively for capitalizing on this accomplishment.”

Patrinos noted that in some ways the public’s goals, at least on the sequencing front, were now different than Celera’s, a fact that could ease tensions and pave the way for future collaborative efforts.

While the publicly funded labs are committed to delivering the complete, accurate, and finished sequence, with every one of the more than three billion base pairs identified, Celera is now more interested in comparative genomics and proteomics.

“With respect to Celera, it is not their intention to go any further with respect to finishing. I think they recognize for their uses they do not need to go into the detail that we plan to,” said Patrinos.

Patrinos said he still supports the idea of a joint annotation jamboree for the human genome, similar to the one Celera held when it completed the Drosophila genome.

“If it proves possible to work together [with Celera] on the human genome in an analogous way to what was done with Drosophila, then there would be high interest on the side of the public in doing that,” he said.

However, the chance for a joint jamboree is slim since Celera hopes to sell its annotation data.

Although obstacles remain along the path to future collaboration, industry players are still hopeful that the joint sequencing announcement will mark a new era of reconciliation.

“There’s been a lot of acrimony back and forth between the two groups--a lot of finger-pointing and disrespect,” said Steve Scherer, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine. “I hope this portends of greater cooperation down the road.”

--Harvey Black, Adrienne Burke, Matthew Dougherty, and Jennifer Friedlin

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