The tortoise and the hare

 作者:瞿亢代     |      日期:2019-03-08 01:04:08
By Jonathan Knight LIKE it or not, 1998 was the year in which the genome project turned into a race. In May, veteran DNA sequencer Craig Venter helped to found Celera Genomics of Rockville, Maryland, with a pledge to finish sequencing the human genome by 2001. And in August, Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, California, upped the stakes when it promised to complete a first run through the genome—albeit a patchy one—by 2000. The Human Genome Project (HGP), a loose international alliance of government and charity-funded labs, countered by bringing its timetable forward by two years. According to some insiders, this was largely at the instigation of Britain’s Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical charity, which convinced officials in the US that the project couldn’t simply be left to the private sector. The HGP now aims to identify all 30 billion bases in the human genome by 2003. But this race could be a rerun of Aesop’s fabled contest, since the commercial hares are in danger of losing out to the steady progress of the publicly funded tortoises. Both have strong motivations to get DNA sequences first. The companies want to win patents, while the public sequencers say they want to keep the data freely available for future research. The problem for Incyte and Celera is that once a sequence is deposited in a public database, it becomes very hard to patent. So who will finish up as winner? “It’s really much too early for anyone to say,” says Robert Cook-Deegan of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, who helped to create the Gene Patents Database, which is run by the Foundation for Genetic Medicine in Manassas, Virginia. Among other wild cards, Celera’s efforts could be hampered by a dispute over patents with the British firm Amersham Pharmacia Biotech, about rights to use the dyes that allow sequencing machines to speed-read the genome. To avoid being beaten by the HGP, Celera says it will concentrate on single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs. These are one-letter changes in the genetic code sometimes found in association with genetic predispositions to certain diseases. Jane Rogers, a molecular biologist at the Sanger Centre, the Wellcome Trust’s genome campus in Cambridgeshire, agrees that identifying SNPs has not been a major focus for the HGP—which is instead drawing up a “consensus” sequence for a typical human. “The public effort will probably not cost Celera any patents,” she says. But Francis Collins, head of the National Center for Human Genome Research near Washington DC, part of the US National Institutes of Health, isn’t so sure. In October, the NIH divided $40 million among more than 20 labs across the US to support SNP discovery, he says. Celera has promised to make nearly all the sequences it produces public after three months’ delay, to give it time to patent interesting genes. “If there was no public effort, I can’t imagine why they would make their sequences public,” observes Cook-Deegan. Incyte, however, makes no bones about its plan to keep all its data to itself. Nevertheless, the element of competition with the public sector is played down by Incyte president Randy Scott. “Because of our focus on gene-rich regions, we aren’t competing directly with the Human Genome Project,” he says. Collins makes similar conciliatory noises: “It’s been very good to have the pot stirred by the private announcements. It keeps us from getting complacent.” However, Collins can’t hide his will to win the race. “This trend to patent research tools so far upstream is dangerous,