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UPDATE: Genome Database Head Ousted in Dispute Over Commercializing Data

NEW YORK, Nov. 14 – The principal investigator and director of the GDB Human Genome Database in Canada has been ousted by the hospital that hosted the database, GenomeWeb  has learned.

 

A. Jamie Cuticchia, who has worked with the GDB since 1992, said that he was fired by the Toronto-based Hospital for Sick Children on Nov. 2, and that the hospital had “seized” data from the GDB three weeks earlier in a dispute over efforts to commercialize the database.

 

Cuticchia added that hospital staff have had access to his personal and business papers since Oct. 19, the date he was suspended from his position.

 

HSC spokeswoman Cyndy DeGiusti said that Cuticchia was "terminated with cause and the hospital has filed a notice of action, which is the preliminary step in a potential lawsuit asking for the return of a hospital asset."

 

The asset in question, DeGiusti said, is the domain name   www.gdb.org . "It appears from the information that our internal auditors have found that some of the staff in our bioinformatics center were working to commercialize an asset that the hospital owns without any involvement from the hospital."

 

DeGiusti said the hospital is also employing an external auditor to examine the records involved.

 

According to Cuticchia, the HSC on Nov. 5 filed a lawsuit against him and an as-yet unconfirmed number of individuals. It was not immediately known what the charges are in the suit against Cuticchia, although an attorney representing him said that “the suit [is] frivolous in nature” and that “a variety of counter suits are anticipated.”

 

The HSC has also sued Connie Talbot, who curates the database from Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and Chris Porter, another director of GDB. According to the attorney who represents Talbot and Porter via GDB, the two men were charged on Nov. 1 with "misappropriation of the hospital’s resources, funds, proprietary interest, and business opportunities ... including the GDB domain name."

 

Freeware

 

The GDB was created in 1990 as an international compendium of data on human genome research. It was initially hosted at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where it received funding from the US Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and other groups. 

 

Although the database was formed as a public resource to provide data free to academic researchers, a number of private companies have also used it, according to the GDB.

 

When the original funding dried up in 1998, Cuticchia, back in Baltimore, obtained capital from IBM, Oracle, and an anonymous donor to continue the research at the Hospital for Sick Children, which showed interest in taking up the database where Johns Hopkins left off.

 

Now, hosted by the HSC, the GDB was running low on cash again and was looking for another infusion. The GDP “requires funding and staff to create a new version of the outdated software while guaranteeing continued free access to academic researchers," Cuticchia said. “The goal was to raise money for GDB to ensure free academic access over the Internet, while providing copies of the database for companies with commercial licenses." 

 

Apparently, the HSC began researching ways to fund the GDP, which initially included the option of commercialization. According to Cuticchia, after evaluating its options, the hospital notified him in writing in 2000 that it had decided against commercializing the resource and granted him the authority to pursue the effort on his own.

 

DeGiusi denied that the HSC had at any time pursued commercialization of the GDB and argued that Cuticchia's efforts were not authorized by the hospital.

 

Mine. No, mine

 

Cuticchia said the “recent difficulties” between him and the HSC began when he and a group of undisclosed investors went to the hospital on Oct. 18 to present the results of his independent effort to secure funding for the proposed commercial arm of the GDB.

 

Cuticchia said he told high-ranking HSC officials that “he had secured funding for the redevelopment of GDB software” that would help create a new database “that could be licensed to the pharmaceutical industry while ensuring that academic researchers have free access to the data through the Internet.”

 

According to Cuticchia, the meeting lasted “less than the scheduled time” and later that morning he was asked to resign. On Oct. 19 he and Gregg Silk, the GDB’s director of planning and operations, were suspended, Cuticchia said. Three days later, Cuticchia’s administrative assistant, Janet Denton, “was unable” to get into her office and the keys to her desk were allegedly confiscated before she was ultimately escorted from the building, Cuticchia added. Cuticchia was fired on Nov. 2, he said.

 

According to John Hornick, the attorney who represents Talbot and Porter, when Johns Hopkins gave up control of the GDB it sent “magnetic tapes” to HSC but did not transfer any ownership interest in the database, as the HSC contends.

 

“HSC doesn’t have any rights here at all. HSC is totally unable to produce any documents showing that Johns Hopkins transferred any rights at all to them,” said Hornick, an attorney with Finnegan & Henderson, in Washington, DC.

 

The US government, which originally provided the funding to launch the GDB, “has the power to give rights to whomever it wants to keep this database going,” according to Hornick. “So the Canadian court can’t tell the US government not to give rights to anyone it chooses.”

 

When asked how long GDB has held rights to the database, Hornick conceded that it does not yet have any rights but is expecting them soon. He said that he filed for those rights on behalf of the GDB last week but added that the rights may be superfluous in the long run: GDB may still be on the level without holding those rights because the US governement, not the HSC, owns them, he said.

 

Beside all of this, though, is the overlooked notion that Porter and Talbot “aren’t even in the suit” yet because there have been no court documents, Hornick said. Furthermore, the attorney “questions whether a Canadian court has jurisdiction” over an American group.

 

"HSC has shot itself in the foot by getting into all of this," Hornick said. “Our client doesn’t need HSC to run this database. Our client can continue to run the database and keep it available to the scientific community, and HSC can’t do anything about that.”

 

Why does HSC have such a keen interest in maintaining control over the database? “They want to commercialize it and they want to make money,” said Hornick.

 

It was not immediately clear whether a new director for the GDB has been named.

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