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Experts Urge Continuation Of Human Genome Project Funding

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WASHINGTON--A panel of experts that included Craig Venter of the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) urged members of the US House Science Committee's Energy and Environment Subcommittee to continue, or even increase federal funding of the Human Genome Project. The oversight hearing was held here June 17 to review potential affects on the government program of Venter's recently announced venture with Perkin Elmer (PE), which aims to sequence the entire human genome within three years at one-tenth the government's cost.

The subcommittee solicited the opinions of Venter and others--including Ari Patrinos of the US Department of Energy's Biological and Environ mental Research program; Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; University of Washington Professor Maynard Olson; and David Galas, president of Chiroscience, a biotechnology firm in Bothell, Wash.--to determine how future monies should be spent on the federal project that, committee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) noted, has already spent close to $1.9 billion.

The testimony revealed a difference of opinion about the direction that the Human Genome Project should take in light of the TIGR/PE an noun cement, but every witness agreed that Congress should at least continue and probably increase its funding.

Venter told the committee that he disagreed with the opinion that his new venture indicates that the federally funded program has been a waste of money. "I cannot state emphatically enough that our announcement should not be the basis for this claim," he said. "We have only helped get everyone to the starting line a little bit sooner."

Venter said that the effect his venture has on the federal Human Genome Project should be to reorient it sooner to move beyond DNA sequencing into "the research that will help us better understand and treat" disease.

Collins said, "The sequencing strategy recently proposed by Perkin-Elmer and TIGR differs from the public effort in two significant ways: quality and access." He pointed out that the private sector approach does not propose to fill in all the gaps left by unsequenced fragments that are a result of the whole-genome shotgun method. The product that effort creates, he said, "will be incomplete for many research uses."

Collins also reminded the committee that sequence data from the TIGR/PE effort will be released to the public quarterly, rather than daily. "The policy of daily release of DNA sequence data by publicly funded efforts was arrived at because of the great interest in the scientific community in gaining access to this highly valuable information. Any delay can result in wasted effort in research," he said.

Patrinos commented that the Human Genome Project's commitment to a contiguous, high quality, highly accurate, complete sequence is of value. He contrasted it with the product of the PE/TIGR venture, which he said, "will contain many gaps."

But Galas argued that the federal project should be redirected to "focus its attention on how to arrive at the first initial characterization of the genome sequence as quickly as possible, whether or not the private effort contributes in the long run to reaching this goal."

Galas said that the availability of the full sequence of the human genome this year would have saved his small biotechnology company "$1.5 million alone in research costs directly expended on sequencing new regions of the genome and countless months of time on each of several projects." Galas said that "even a rough first draft" of the genome would be invaluable. Thus, he argued, it would be a bad idea for the federally supported project "either to continue unchanged with the strategy currently in effect, or to reduce the level of their efforts."

"Tool-making companies are in a powerful position to influence the directions that basic research takes and the distribution of that research between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors."

But Maynard Olson argued for a more conservative approach. He warned that the community should not get excited by Venter's announcement. "What we have at the moment is neither new technology nor even new scientific activity. What we have is a press release," said Olson.

Predicting that the TIGR/PE venture would produce "poor quality" data and sequences containing "over 10,000 serious gaps" with a "significant fraction" of islands of sequence between them misassembled, Olson advised the committee that a "vigorous public effort be maintained that is directed toward the development of a sequence that will meet the test of time."

Olson also recommended to the committee that it increase funding for the National Human Genome Research Institute. Without expanded funding, he said, "the peak phase of data production for human sequencing will drain other valuable activities" at the institute.

PE's informatics plans

During his testimony, Venter said his new company would work closely with the National Center for Biotechnology Information and that it plans to release data into the public domain at least every three months, to provide a connect fee for online access to the data, and many of the informatics tools needed to interpret them. His company's actions, Venter said, "will make the human genome unpatentable."

Venter also informed the committee that the new company intends to build scientific expertise and informatics tools necessary to extract knowledge from the data it generates. "This will include discovering new genes, developing polymorphism assay systems, and developing a variety of databases," he said.

Olson warned that the PE initiative represents a threat to access to research tools for DNA analysis. He said academic researchers risk losing equal access to critical research tools such as advanced instrumentation for DNA analysis, which, he said, are "increasingly seen as a means through which their developers can acquire intellectual property rather than as products in their own right."

Olson warned, "Tool-making companies are in a powerful position to influence the directions that basic research takes and the distribution of that research between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors."

On a more optimistic note, Patrinos predicted that "surprising new discoveries and advances can be expected over the next few years" from the scientific community involved in the Human Genome Project. "Many of these new discoveries will occur at the interfaces of the sciences that are involved in the project, such as biology, information science, and engineering," he concluded.

--Adrienne Burke

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