Journal publication of Craig Venter's work in identifyinggenes has triggered the grand opening of a new DNAsequence data base that is certain to intensify the debateover access to the rapidly emerging mountain of humangenome information being developed in the public andprivate sectors.

In Thursday's issue of Nature, Venter and his researchteam at the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), ofGaithersburg, Md., described their work in sequencingDNA fragments that represent 30,000 genes. Estimates ofthe total number of genes in the human genome rangefrom 70,000 to 100,000.

The not-for-profit TIGR is funded by Human GenomeSciences Inc., of Rockville, Md., which has rights to theresearch, and London-based SmithKline Beecham plc,which established a $125 million collaboration withHuman Genome Sciences to develop drugs from thegenetic data. In addition to work done by TIGR, HumanGenome Sciences conducts its own gene sequencing fordrug discovery.

Journal publication of TIGR's research traditionallywould make it available through the worldwide networkof public gene sequence data bases coordinated in theU.S. by GenBank, of the National Institutes of Health(NIH) in Bethesda, Md.

But to protect the proprietary rights of Human GenomeSciences and SmithKline, the companies and TIGRestablished their own data base, called the TIGR HumancDNA Database, restricting access to university andgovernment researchers.

As in the public data bases, TIGR's information isavailable through the Internet. However, scientists at drugand biotechnology companies will have to negotiate withHuman Genome Sciences to use the data.

Venter said there are two levels of information available.The first, which accounts for about 90 percent of the genesequence data, can be accessed without restriction. Forthe other 10 percent, researchers must agree to giveHuman Genome Sciences and SmithKline right of firstnegotiation to license patentable discoveries. To date,scientists at 59 research institutions throughout the worldhave signed such pacts.

Venter said the 10 percent included sequences still underevaluation by Human Genome Sciences and SmithKline.

Venter told BioWorld Today the TIGR data base, whichwas set up with $8.5 million from SmithKline, is not incompetition with the public data bases.

However, officials at GenBank, which is run by theNIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information(NCBI), said DNA fragments representing 34,600 genesare currently available in the public data base.

GenBank's DNA sequence information has explodedthanks to Merck & Co., of Whitehouse Station, N.J.Merck, which entered into a gene sequencingcollaboration a year ago with Washington University ofSt. Louis, sends all the data directly to GenBank.

How many of the genes in the public arena overlap withwhat's available through TIGR is not known, GenBankofficials said.

Mark Boguski, NCBI senior medical officer, said TIGR'sorganization represents a new model _ one where aprivate data base managed by companies is being offeredfor public research.

"How that model will work has yet to be determined," hesaid, adding that GenBank provides thousands of publicand private researchers with data every month withoutrestrictions.

Venter said TIGR's data base and GenBank's are asdifferent as "night and day."

GenBank "basically provides raw sequences," he said,while researchers from TIGR and Human GenomeSciences "have spent two years adding value" to theirsequence data.

Venter said advances in Internet communications haveeliminated the need for a central repository of data andhave given rise to the potential for establishing a networkof "boutique data bases." n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.