LONDON - A tit-for-tat between public sector and commercial interests broke out last week when the Wellcome Trust, the world's largest charity, said it would spend an extra £110 million on its human genome sequencing effort in a bid to ensure that sequence data is freely available.

The move by London-based Wellcome Trust is a direct challenge to a new genomics company set up by J. Craig Venter and the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), of Rockville, Md., in collaboration with Perkin-Elmer Corp., a Norwalk, Conn., laboratory instrument specialist, which said last week it will invest $200 million to sequence the human genome in the next three years, selling the data and patenting some of the genes.

The Wellcome Trust previously committed to funding the sequencing of one sixth of the human genome at the Sanger Centre, in Cambridge, which was built for the task. The day after the as-yet-unnamed U.S. company was formed, the trust said it would double this to one third. This decision will make available an additional £110 million over seven years, bringing the total Wellcome investment in the Human Genome Project to £205 million.

And Wellcome hinted it could further increase its funding, saying it will open discussions with existing members of the Human Genome Project, with a view to an international agreement whereby up to 50 percent of the genome could be sequenced in the U.K.

Wellcome is making these moves because of concern that Venter's company might file opportunistic patents on DNA sequences. It currently is conducting an urgent review of the credibility and scope of patents based solely on DNA sequence, and is prepared to mount a challenge to the granting of such patents.

In a strongly worded statement, Wellcome said, “This week a commercial venture announced its intention to produce partial sequences of the human genome, to delay release of this information and to have exclusive rights to patent some of these sequences. This venture will not fulfill the aims of the international collaboration of the Human Genome Project . . . the human genome should be sequenced, through an international collaboration, as speedily and accurately as possible, with the results being placed immediately in the public domain.“

Wellcome is the leading European funder of human genome sequencing, generating one-third of all the data produced to date. It makes the sequences freely available, publishing new data daily on the Human Genome Project's Internet Web site. As a symbol of its commitment to openness, a liquid crystal panel in the reception area of the Sanger Centre displays the data as it pours out of the screening laboratory.

Wellcome is credited with persuading the U.S. National Institutes of Health not to patent the gene sequences it uncovers in its sequencing laboratories.

John Sulston, director of the Sanger Centre, said gene sequences should not be patentable because there is no inventive step - patent rights should kick in at the level of invention of new diagnostic or pharmaceutical products.

“We are working out the sequence of each gene, but we are not finding out in any sense what the genes do,“ he observed.

Venter's plans are based on ultra-fast DNA sequencing machines developed by Perkin-Elmer - 230 of the machines will churn out 100,000 base pairs of DNA per day. The company aims to become the definitive source of genomic and associated medical information.

The Human Genome Project - a US$3 billion, 15-year effort - was started in 1990 with substantial funding contributions coming from the U.S. government and Wellcome. The Sanger Centre and Washington University, in St. Louis, have led the international collaborative process and established the international policy of free release of data. *

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