Gene sequencing collaborators SmithKline Beecham plc, HumanGenome Sciences Inc. and The Institute of Genomic Research(TIGR) are nearing the launch of a project aimed at giving non-commercial scientists access to the trio's data base of between30,000 and 35,000 genes.Progress on the project, initiated three months ago, was updatedMonday on the heels of an announcement last week by Merck &Co. that it would make public all data from its newly-establishedgene sequencing collaboration with St. Louis-based WashingtonUniversity.While Merck, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., is several years behindother big drug companies, such as SmithKline Beecham, in enteringthe genomics field, Merck's decision to give the public access todata without protecting the company's commercial rights is adeparture from the norm.All gene-sequencing information from the Merck-WashingtonUniversity will feed directly into the National Institutes of Health'sGenBank, a public data base accessible by Internet and run by theNational Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) inBethesda, Md.The gene sequencing data developed by Human Genome Sciences,of Rockville, Md., and TIGR, of Gaithersburg, Md., andSmithKline Beecham, whose U.S. headquarters are in Philadelphia,will not be made available to the public through GenBank.The trio is setting up its own data base and will restrict access toacademic scientists and those associated with nonprofit researchgroups. In addition, Human Genome Sciences and SmithKline willretain commercial rights to potential drugs.Merck as well as Human Genome Sciences and SmithKlineBeecham said their efforts are aimed at speeding the overall processof scientific research and drug discovery.Public access, Merck's Jeff Sturchio told BioWorld, is a"fundamental" difference between what his company has proposedand what SmithKline and Human Genome Sciences are planning."Gene sequencing is only the beginning of a whole line of inquiry,"said Sturchio, Merck's director of science and technology policy."To use it, you have to do a lot of biology. Our feeling is that thefirst step is making the basic research tool, the sequencesthemselves, available to the public."Human Genome Sciences' Bradley Lorimier, senior vice presidentof business development, told BioWorld his group's announcementMonday was triggered, in part, by the industry stir Merck'sagreement generated."We thought it was important to let the scientific and academiccommunity know that very soon a major resource will be available,rather than waiting several years," Lorimier said, adding that TIGRand Human Genome Resources have a larger and "moresophisticated" cDNA database than others in the field."We have cDNA sequences for 30,000 to 35,000 human genes," hesaid. "Other data bases haven't reached that level. GenBank has4,000 genes . . . and we have most of those."Lorimier said the timing of the announcement Monday also wasassociated with TIGR Director J. Craig Ventor's anticipatedpublication of his research in a scientific journal. The collaborationamong TIGR, Human Genome Sciences and SmithKline is based onVentor's gene sequencing technology. TIGR manages and operatesthe data base, which is funded by Human Genome Sciences andSmithKline. The data base is expected to be accessible followingpublication of Ventor's paper later this year.Lorimier acknowledged that, traditionally, when research ispublished in one of the scientific journals, it becomes availablethrough GenBank.Protecting Proprietary Interests"We've established an alternative," Lorimier said. "The approachwe're taking preserves the proprietary interests of the companieswhile at the same time allows scientists to use the information topursue academic research. No one has come close to allowingaccess to as many sequences as we have."Lorimier said data base agreements will be made on two levels. Onthe first, researchers will have access, without restrictions, tosequences and other data previously described in scientificliterature.On the second level, the entire TIGR data base will be madeavailable based on certain requirements. Among those is thatHuman Genome Sciences and SmithKline retain the option oflicensing patentable discoveries. In return, the inventor's institutionwill receive royalties on marketed products. Also, researchers canonly publish sequence information if they add scientific value to thedata.Lorimier said access to the TIGR data base will be made viaelectronic mail and regulated with a password, for which there willbe no charge.In the agreement with Washington University, which is among thetop genome centers in the field, Sturchio said data will be madeavailable to the public as soon as it is processed."Not only will we make the sequences available," he said, " we alsowill make the clones available."One element in discussions on gene sequencing has focused onwhether proprietary interests slow the progress of drug discovery.Mark Boguski, NCBI's senior medical officer, told BioWorldGenBank currently receives 5,000 search requests per month. Ifmore genome researchers made their data public, Boguskiestimated, "that could increase 10-fold," speeding drugdevelopment.However, Lorimier said, "We believe very strongly that thepreservation of proprietary rights and the ability to ultimately obtainproducts is a key factor in insuring that new drugs do becomeavailable to the public."He noted that Human Genome Sciences and SmithKline havecommitted more than $100 million to DNA sequencing,bioinformatics and gene function analysis. In addition, the twocompanies are contributing another $8.5 million to enable TIGR toset up the data base for academic researchers. n"We are making information available to the scientific communityon the basis of a well-analyzed and sophisticated data base to allowadvances in science, rather than placing data in GenBank and lettingthe scientific community make what it can." n

-- Charles Craig

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