Merck & Co. Inc. is making a late _ if not altruistic _ bid to jointhe genomics field.The Whitehouse, N.J., company said Wednesday that it will establisha standard arrayed cDNA library, generate sequence tags from eachof the clones in that set and give all interested parties unrestrictedaccess to the libraries and associated data bases."With this project, Merck is promoting the unrestricted exchange ofgenomic data," Edward Scolnic, president of Merck ResearchLaboratories, said Wednesday.Jeff Sturchio, Merck's director of science and technology policy, toldBioWorld a formal agreement was expected to be reached soon withWashington University in St. Louis, whose researchers would isolateand sequence genes."Our plan is to have sequencing coming out of the project by the endof 1994," Keith Elliston, Merck's associate director, bioinformatics,told BioWorld. "We hope to be complete with our end of this projectsometime in early to mid-1996."Kenneth Fasman, director of informatics for the Genome DatabaseProject at Johns Hopkins University, told BioWorld that WashingtonUniversity is among the top few genome centers in the world. He saidthe National Institutes of Health funds work at the university, as wellas 11 other genome centers in the U.S., and resulting data then ismade available to the public.Mary Ann Gray, vice president of Kidder, Peabody & Co., toldBioWorld the arrangement isn't likely to threaten other players in thefield. "It's going to have a relatively minor impact" in the genomicsfield, she said. "I don't think Merck's activity will detract fromanyone else, and it may facilitate new discoveries."There's one more player in the field of gene discovery now," Graysaid. "It's a huge field."She said it's hard to imagine that the Merck-Washington Universityeffort can catch up to what other companies, with more resources andscientists, have been doing for two years. Perhaps Merck realized thearea is going to be hot for years to come, and "is making thestatement that we want to be involved in the discovery of genes."Merck's plan calls for the libraries to be stored in the public domain,and available to all interested researchers (presumably includingcompetitors), who will be encouraged to contribute their informationon expressed sequence tags, full-length sequences, gene maps andprotein expression. Over time, an estimated 200,000 individualclones will be gridded onto filters and into plates, and distributedthrough established networks to researchers interested in particulargenes.Sturchio said Merck will not retain rights to the information."It's a great situation for everybody," said Gray, who added: "It'sreally hard to fathom what their motivation is in all this."Was Fear The Motivation?Randy Scott, vice president of research and development for IncytePharmaceuticals Inc., which already has a data base for genesequencing and more, believes he knows why Merck made the move."Merck is a little scared of the fact that they're a couple of yearsbehind what's being done at Pfizer and SmithKline," Scott toldBioWorld. "They want to play the role of spoiler here, especially toSmithKline."SmithKline Beecham plc has a collaboration with Human GenomeSciences Inc. (HGS), of Rockville, Md., in which SmithKline willpay up to $125 million for rights to develop genes discovered at HGS.Pfizer Inc. is a subscriber to Palo Alto, Calif.-based Incyte's gene database."Essentially, we have what Merck is talking about doing," Scott said,"and we're making it commercially available, but not freely to theacademic community. Merck stepped in as kind of a `white knight' tothe academic community."Scott added, "Merck is a great company that's done a lot to acceleratemedical research, so I'm sure that has some impact as far as wantingto give back to the academic community. I think it's a great time forthe whole field."HGS and collaborators at SmithKline and The Institute for GenomicResearch (TIGR) already have made more than 400 cDNA librariesfrom primary human tissue, William Haseltine, HGS' chairman andCEO, told BioWorld. "We have isolated over 500,000 cDNA clones.We have determined the partial sequence of over 300,000 clones, forover 100 million nucleotides of human cDNA information," he said.HGS, of Rockville, Md., also has four supercomputers and 10 high-grade computers to help in the analysis. The company has determinedfull-length sequences and filed for patents on more than 70 full-length human genes, Haseltine said.Playing Catch-UpSo Merck clearly has some catching up to do. But officials there saidthat's not the point."Merck feels very strongly that basic research tools should be broadlyavailable," Sturchio said. "Anything that advances basic biomedicalresearch is good for Merck."Elliston, who said Merck "placed a certain confidence on the openaccess to information" in the field, said "not having this informationis getting close to impeding the project. We want this information tobe open to everyone."Merck would not disclose the amount of funding it was providingexcept that it was "several million." Speculation ranged from a fewmillion up to $10 million.Fasman said either the high or low end of that contribution wouldmake a significant difference at Washington University. The $10million would be more than the annual funding for any of thecountry's genome centers, he said, and "it could almost double thesize of the operations at Washington University."It's an absolutely wonderful thing on Merck's part," Fasman said."They're backing one of the best horses in the race."HGS stock (NASDAQ:HGSI) fell $1.38 Wednesday, to $16.38 ashare, despite positive reports about the company in light of Merck'sannouncement from Kidder, Peabody & Co., as well as LehmanBrothers. Merck (NYSE:MRK) stock fell 38 cents, closing at $35.63.n

-- Jim Shrine

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