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Structural Genomics Delegates Hash Out Priorities for International Collaboration

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HINXTON, UK--Delegates said talks were congenial and productive at a meeting at the Wellcome Trust Genome campus here last month where about 40 industry, university, and government scientists discussed a possible large-scale international collaboration to determine all the basic shapes of proteins.

Among the potentially contentious issues aired were those relating to intellectual property rights and practical matters such as what structural details corporate collaborators would have to make public and how rapidly they would have to do so.

Attendees who spoke about the meeting to BioInform expressed concern that their comments not be misinterpreted and a desire to defer to a pending official report. John Norvell, assistant director of the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which cohosted the meeting, said his agency would make the report available on the web in about a week.

Brookhaven National Laboratory biologist William Studier, who was invited but did not attend the meeting, attributed the participants' caution to a desire to avoid any schism such as emerged in the Human Genome Project when patent-related issues led Craig Venter to leave the US National Institutes of Health and, ultimately, to initiate a private sector genome project with Celera Genomics.

"People are hoping to set ground rules for a relationship [between the public and private sectors] early on," Studier said, "so people can keep cooperating."

Advocates of an international Structural Genome Project characterize it as a natural successor to the genome sequencing efforts that are now nearing completion. What the project would be and how it would unfold, is undecided. One possible scenario is that researchers would use sequence data to identify all proteins liable to represent shapes or folds that have not yet been observed, and to assemble for experimentation a minimal set of proteins representing all biologically relevant folds. They would then determine the structures of these representatives using techniques of crystallography or NMR to produce a basis to guess the shapes the other genes encode.

The meeting's chief accomplishment was to bring together people from a spectrum of interests to air ideas, said Helen Berman, a structural biologist at Rutgers University and director of the Protein Data Bank, the online repository of 3-D protein structure data.

Participants decided on no specifics, but Berman characterized this as natural. "If we were to make detailed policy while the project is still in its infancy," she said, "that would be a mistake."

She said delegates recommended establishing several study groups to investigate issues in more detail.

Attendees of the April 5-6 meeting included experimentalists, protein modelers, bioinformatics researchers and research administrators from eight countries--all those that have or are planning structural genomics projects.

Berman said she expects that issues relating to a large international collaboration will come into clearer focus later this year, when the National Institute of General Medical Sciences approves proposals for a handful of pilot structural genomics projects, for which it announced funding last summer.

--Oliver Baker

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