WASHINGTON--Negotiations toward a private-public human genome sequencing effort between Celera Genomics and the international Human Genome Project imploded last week and turned into an open feud after Human Genome Project directors leaked to the news media a confidential letter addressed to Craig Venter, Celera's president. The letter outlined differences between the two parties that had emerged during a December 29, 1999, meeting. Venter retaliated by publishing his response. (The full text of both letters is available on BioInform's website, http://www.bioinform.com).
A spokeswoman at the Wellcome Trust, a UK agency that contributes funding to the international public project, said officials there had leaked the letter to elicit a response from Celera,
which had not replied within one week. The Trust on March 5 sent the letter, dated February 28 on US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health letterhead, to journalists at the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times "to get something out fairly quickly," the spokeswoman said.
By midweek the controversy had gained national attention. In a live midday interview with Sam Donaldson on ABCNews.com, William Haseltine, president and CEO of Human Genome Sciences, called the squabble "typical of the academic world" where he said scientists often fight over who gets footnoted.
While the matter of whom would be credited for the genome sequencing work was one point of contention, the letters noted several other obstacles to a collaboration that, according to directors of the government-run project, had the potential to complete the sequence much faster and more thoroughly than either group could on its own. A joint initiative could "produce a substantially better product, since it would allow bilateral sharing of electrophoretic traces and a joint effort to resolve discrepancies," according to the letter signed by Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute; Harold Varmus, former director of the US National Institutes of Health and current director of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Robert Waterston, head of the Department of Genetics at Washington University in St. Louis; and Martin Bobrow, head of clinical genetics at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, UK, and a member of the board of governors of the Wellcome Trust.
The main barrier to such teamwork, they said, involved Celera's requirement for exclusive commercial rights to combined data. According to the public effort's directors, Celera had requested commercial rights for up to five years--beyond the public effort's projected 2003 completion date. Celera should get exclusive distribution rights to the merged dataset for "no more than 6-12 months after the initiation of the collaboration," the public group argued.
Other sticking points involved Celera's desire for commercial rights beyond databases to "experimental applications, such as the development of genome chips, large primer sets, or applications to proteomics and analysis of regulatory sequences," NIH's letter noted. The Human Genome Project has pushed for the combined sequence data to be made available over the internet from one or more noncommercial web sites, while Celera has insisted that its web page be the only access point.
Venter, who told the Washington Post that leaking the confidential letter was a "low-life thing to do," replied publicly on March 7. He said he felt he had been given a one-week ultimatum and reiterated Celera's stance that it needs a return on its investment from commercial users of its data. For pure research uses, Venter foresaw "information being released at little or no cost to the end user."
Venter contended that the December meeting had focused on hypothetical scenarios that led to distortions of Celera's views in the NIH letter. At that meeting, Celera mentioned that data protection was a concern after public-effort leaders said their researchers needed access to all of Celera's data, including the company's electrophoretic files.
Both letters pointed to Celera's work with Gerald Rubin of the University of California, Berkeley, on the Drosophila genome sequence as a model to imitate. Venter wrote that, as with Drosophila, his company would assemble the human genome using its own data while relying on public data only for comparison. Celera also offered to use both sources to compile a consensus human genome that scientists from public labs could check and analyze.
Celera has proposed that the finished consensus genome sequence would be available to all researchers at Celera's website, which would serve to protect the company's commercial interests. Human Genome Project leaders said they want to distribute information in a digital-video-disk format. Celera called that a "possibility."
"The only restriction that Celera has ever requested is that other database providers would be prohibited from providing or selling Celera's data as their own," Venter said.