WASHINGTON _ Perhaps the most intensive research effort inbiomedicine, the race to identify all human genes, has alreadychurned out sequences for 50,000 candidate genes andoverwhelmed the capacity of science and society to digest theinformation, some of the nation's leading geneticists saidWednesday.The effort, led by J. Craig Ventor and his coworkers at the industry-funded Institute for Genomic Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md.,promises to revolutionize _ and ultimately redefine _ medicalscience."Sequencing is going to be the key to the future understanding ofphysiology and biochemistry," Ventor said. "In terms of geneexpression, we're at the very earliest stages of understanding."The research has already begun to upend, and perhaps topple, thenation's staid intellectual property system, as computers churn outvaluable gene sequences faster than lawyers and governmentbureaucrats can adjudicate patents.It also has plunged academic centers into competition with for-profit drug companies over rights to potentially valuable genesequences, as universities turn to royalties to replace dwindlingfederal research funds, Ventor told reporters during a briefing atHuman Genome 1994, which ended Wednesday."Essentially every university in this country has been turned into a abiotech company," he said. "They just won't acknowlege it."The break-neck pace of research and unrelenting competition tobring new drugs and diagnostics to market has so shaken evenseasoned members of the research community that 30 or 40 secretlyconvened a rump session at the genome meeting to discussintellectual property questions.The group, made up of representatives of the National Institutes ofHealth, the Department of Energy, the Canadian genome project,private foundations, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companiesfocused on such issues as what "strings" would be attached to datagenerated through the Human Genome Project and other avenues ofgenetic research, said participants who attended the meeting.Sequencing In High GearVentor, whose Expressed Sequenced Tag method of rapid geneidentification has helped kick human genome research into highgear, told the meeting that his institute now has more than 170,000human genetic sequences, totalling more than 52 million base pairsof sequence information in three "massively parallel" computers.About 50,000 of them are human genes, he said.Ventor's insistence that the results of his research be publiclyavailable has led institute lawyers to develop a two-tier "access"agreement. It will give investigators who can prove they work for anon-profit research foundation "that does not engage in humangenomic research for the purpose of commercial gain" free accessto information so long as they credit the institute for the sequences.The agreement exempts inventor royalties from its definition of"commercial gain."The agreement continues: "Data may be used for non-commercialresearch purposes only, provided, however, that [the contractingresearch center] and its Investigators may permit the results ofresearch using data received under this level I access agreement tobe commercialized without further obligation" to the Institute forGenomic Research; its commercialization arm, Human GenomeSciences Inc., in Rockville, Md.; or Smith-Kline Beecham Corp. ofPhiladelphia, which has paid $125 million for exclusive rights toportions of the data.The second level agreement, however, would give Human GenomeSciences Inc. the option "to negotiate the terms of an exclusive ornonexclusive commercialization license on reasonable terms for thedevelopment of the inventions licensed to HGS into medicaldiagnostic or therapeutic products."Ventor prophesized that soon researchers who have tracked adisease-causing gene to a specific locus on a chromosome would beable to "do a 30 second computer search to get a complete run-down of genes in that region.New Libraries Set UpIn addition, Ventor said, because existing human cDNA librarieswere "completely insufficient to the task" of distinguishing newsequences from old ones, the institute has also established morethan 300 new libraries, covering every major organ and tissue."So far we have gotten 30,000 sequences from the brain and 20,000from embryonic tissue," he said, mentioning just a couple ofcategories from a lengthy list he displayed before the audience.With collaborators at Johns Hopkins University, the Institute forGenomic Research is also on the brink of completing thesequencing of the hemophilus influenza genome. The institute hasalready completed sequencing the smallpox gene. The government-sponsored Human Genome Project, in contrast, isprogressing slowly, hampered by technology that is not yet up tothe task of sequencing as many as 4 billion bases into an estimated50,000 to 100,000 genes that govern every cell in the body.Using current technology, scientists would have to generate100,000 30 kilobase cosmides, which is equivalent to 60,000sequence reactions, said Richard A. Gibbs , a geneticist at theBaylor College of Medicine. If researchers could accomplish 6,000sequence readings a week, which is the gold standard established byresearchers at Washington University in St. Louis, "it will take 240years to do the job." As a result, he said, researchers are trying to push the capability ofcurrent technology by improved research strategies. They are alsotrying to develop improved technology, which relies heavily onautomation and computational support. n
-- Steve Sternberg Special to Bioworld Today
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