U.S. and Britain Urge Open Gene Access
Anne Gearan,
Associated Press Writer

7:32 PM EST; March 14, 2000; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- The United States and Britain signaled solidarity Tuesday against the aspirations of private companies looking to profit from early discoveries in the race to map the basic human genetic code. The two governments are the leading players in the nonprofit Human Genome Project, which plans to publish a full genetic map on the Internet by 2003. The information, which President Clinton called "the scientific breakthrough of the century, perhaps of all time," would be available free to scientists and researchers.

In a joint statement by Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the President urged broad agreement that the basic genetic picture be fully accessible to all. "I urge all other nations, scientists and corporations to adopt this policy and honor its spirit," Clinton said Tuesday, during a White House awards ceremony honoring advances in science. "We must ensure the profits of human genome research are measured not in dollars but in the betterment of human life," the President said. The human genome is a biological map laying out the exact sequence of the estimated 3.5 billion pairs of chemicals that make up the DNA in each human cell. Those chemicals are arranged in specific ways to create the estimated [80,000 - 100,000] human genes, which in turn carry the instructions for all the body's processes.

At issue is the fight over ways to patent, sell, and profit from genetic information and developments. The chief rival to the Human Genome Project is a private company called Celera Genomics Corp., which is also trying to map the genome, but more quickly and at one-tenth the cost of the $2 billion publicly funded project. The company has applied for thousands of patents on genes it has discovered, and critics worry that the patents, if approved, may prevent other scientists from conducting research while allowing Celera to profit at the public's expense. Celera walked away from discussions last week over cooperation with the Government-funded group. Celera has access to the Human Genome Project's work in progress, but for now its own human research is kept private. The company said it supports eventually granting open access to raw genetic data but also wants its investors to profit from its discoveries. "Exclusively funded by the capital put at risk by its investors, Celera unabashedly looks to reward those risks, advance science, and ultimately better the human condition," said a Celera statement released Tuesday.

The U.S. Patent Office decided long ago that raw data about the sequence of human genes cannot be patented, and the fight has shifted to more complicated questions about how that information is used to predict, prevent or treat illness. The Clinton-Blair statement does not represent any change in patent policy, but does reflect government concern that Celera could monopolize potentially valuable information, said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think the government is engaging in a little jawboning here," said Caplan, likening the strategy to the point in labor negotiations when one side or the other tries to use provocative public statements to nudge the other back to the bargaining table.

White House science and technology adviser Neal Lane denied the Clinton-Blair statement or its timing is intended to "force anybody's hand," but Wall Street seemed to view it that way. Biotechnology stocks took a dive on fears that companies involved in genetic mapping will not be allowed to sell genetic data to drug makers and researchers. Celera, which is part of PE Corp., tumbled 47 to 142 on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Human Genome Project has cataloged about one-third of the human genetic pattern so far. Dr. Francis Collins, its Director, said that within months he expects to have a rough draft of the entire 3.5 billion subunits of human DNA in the genome. That will enable scientists to start work on the next (and potentially lucrative) step -- finding out what the function of each gene is.

On the Net: Human Genome Project: ornl.gov/hgmis