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NCI/Celera Deal Gives Researchers Power to Choose, but Wellcome Trust Stands by its Ban

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Last week’s decision by the National Cancer Institute to permit individual principal investigators to purchase access to Celera’s database was hailed by Celera and NCI alike as a conciliatory conclusion to the often ugly rivalry between the company and the publicly funded Human Genome Project.

“In some ways, it’s a validation of the American way, which is to start competition,” said Stephen O’Brien, chief of the NCI’s laboratory of genomic diversity.

An apt point, considering that the NIH’s European counterpart, the Wellcome Trust, is sticking by its official policy that forbids researchers to spend Wellcome Trust funds on Celera’s data. A spokeswoman from the Wellcome Trust, which drafted a prepared policy statement on the issue upon publication of the human genome sequence papers in February, told BioInform that the Trust has no plans to change its policy in light of the NCI decision.

The Wellcome Trust has been a vocal opponent of paying Celera for information freely available through resources it has funded. It recently launched a large-scale advertising campaign to raise awareness of the free online data sources that it supports, and notes in its policy statement that “because the Trust has no evidence to suggest that the Celera database resources offer any significant scientific advantage over those currently available in the public domain, the Trust considers that the payment of subscription costs to access Celera database resources does not constitute a justifiable use of its funds.”

NIH takes a different view of the matter, however, and chose to address the sticky policy issue of whether it should spend public money on private data with a “free market” approach. “It’s up to the PIs whether they spend their budget on it or not,” said Craig Hyde, special assistant to the director for the NCI’s Center for Cancer Research. “The real pressure is on them — their budget is precious to them.”

Hyde noted that the memorandum of understanding signed by the NCI covers only intramural NCI grantees at the center’s Bethesda and Frederick, Md., campuses. Several other NIH agencies are currently in discussions with Celera to work out subscription agreements, he said.

In addition, the NIH would consider subscription offers from other companies, according to Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research.

Under the agreement, the first 45 principal investigators can purchase a one-year subscription for the Discovery System for $12,222. Prices drop to a minimum of $7,000 should 101 or more NCI investigators sign up. This rate covers the PI and three additional users. Up to 22 additional users in the person’s lab can get access for $500 each.

Hyde estimated that approximately 400 NCI researchers are eligible to subscribe.

— KH and BT

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