LONDON ¿ The Wellcome Trust, a U.K. medical charity, has brought together a consortium of 10 pharmaceutical companies in a pre-competitive project to map 150,000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that distinguish individuals from each other. The map, for use in association studies, will be made available on public databases.

The Wellcome Trust will contribute #9 million (US$14.5 million) to the two-year, #28 million project, to be run by the SNP Consortium, which will be chaired by Arthur Holden, former CEO of the U.K. diagnostics company Celsis plc. The members of the consortium are AstraZeneca plc, of London; Bayer AG, of Leverkusen, Germany; Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., of New York; F. Hoffman-La Roche, of Basel, Switzerland; Glaxo Wellcome plc, of London; Hoechst Marion Roussel AG, of Frankfurt, Germany; Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland; Pfizer Inc., of New York; G.D. Searle & Co., of Skokie, Ill.; and SmithKline Beecham plc, of London.

For the Wellcome Trust, one of the major funders of the Human Genome Project, this is a triumph of its view that gene sequences should not be patentable. For the pharmaceutical companies, the unprecedented collaboration is an acknowledgement that they cannot afford a genetics ¿gold rush¿ that will cut them out of important disease areas and targets, and a recognition of the ethical objections to patenting of human genes.

For example, pharmaceutical companies are looking nervously at the success of Genset SA, of Paris, which says it will produce a 60,000-SNP map by the end of 1999. The company has demonstrate the power of its approach by using the map to identify ApoE4 genes, two prostrate cancer genes and another of undisclosed function.

The consortium¿s work will be carried out at a number of academic centers, including the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass.; Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis; Wellcome Trust¿s Sanger Centre, in Cambridge, U.K.; Stanford Human Genome Center, in Stanford, Calif.; and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in New York.

Its SNP map will be placed in the public domain as it is constructed, giving free and equal access to medical researchers worldwide. It will be used in identifying specific genes involved in both common and rare diseases; developing diagnostic tests, and in pharmacogenomics.

SNPs are common variations in human DNA; while humans have 99.9 percent of their DNA in common, the difference between one individual and another is effectively the result of the differences in their SNPs. SNPs are estimated to occur at every 1,000 bases in the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome. The SNP consortium will identify up to 300,000 of them, and map at least 150,000 for use in association studies.

This will allow, for example, SNP patterns from a target population, such as those suffering from a particular disease, or who suffer a high level of side effects to a particular drug, to be compared with SNP patterns of unaffected populations.

¿The mission of the SNP Consortium is to make widely available an important research tool that will advance our understanding of disease processes and, by extension, the field of human medicine,¿ Holden said. n