A leading NIH human genome researcher announced Mondaythat he will leave his position to form a private not-for-profitinstitute with an ambitious goal of discovering more than halfof the human genome within five years at a savings of billionsof dollars from the estimated cost of the federally fundedHuman Genome Project (HGP).

J. Craig Venter said he will leave the NIH within a week to headthe Institute for Genomic Research (IGR), which will be linkedwith a for-profit company, Human Genome Sciences Inc. (HGS)of Edison, N.J. HGS, which agreed to provide IGR with $70million in funding, said last April that it expected to raise morethan $200 million in two venture capital partnerships, calledHealthCare Ventures III L.P. and HealthCare Ventures IV L.P.

Venter said IGR will dramatically accelerate the speed of theworldwide effort to map the human genome. He claims that byusing his techniques for automating partial sequences andcorrelating results with data bases of known gene data, hisgroup should be able to accomplish in a few years what HGPplanners figure could take well over a decade.

IGR will "discover over half of the human genome within thenext three to five years at a cost significantly below the billionsof dollars previously thought required," Venter told BioWorld.

Venter said that the team of 25 to 30 scientists who workedwith him to pioneer automated gene discovery techniques atNIH have agreed to follow him to the new institute. This teamis capable of discovering up to 2,000 new genes per week andexpects to be able to "obtain putative identifications on 30 ofthem through extensive computer searches," he said.

Venter said that the new institute, which expects to locatesomewhere in suburban Montgomery County, Md., near theNIH, will be the largest of its kind and will pioneer newscientific techniques, including development of new, massivelyparallel computers and computational techniques. IBM isconsidering a very large grant to support IGR'scomputerization, he said.

Venter said the idea for IGR was first proposed to him onlyfour weeks ago, following a six-month period in which he wasapproached by officials of several venture capital firms andestablished companies that were interested in recruiting him tocommercial projects.

HGS's board of directors includes Wallace H. Steinberg, who isHGS's chairman and formerly a research and marketingexecutive at Johnson & Johnson; James H. Cavanaugh, formerlypresident of SmithKline & French Laboratories U.S. and deputychief of the White House staff under President Ford; Harold R.Werner, J&J's former director of new ventures; and Donald D.Johnston, a former member of J&J's executive committee.

HGS "will have commercial rights to intellectual property rightsfrom research conducted by the institute," Steinberg said. HGSwill aggressively pursue commercialization of pharmaceuticalproducts based on proprietary information developed by IGR,but it will make all basic scientific discoveries available to thescientific community, he said.

Affirming that goal of scientific sharing and activecommercialization, Venter said that all of IGR's findings will bepublished within six months. The link to HGS will speed thedevelopment of beneficial products and will not hinderscientific communication, he said.

HGS "will have commercial rights to the institute's discoveries,"Venter said. "However, the company has agreed that scientistsat the institute and the company will freely publish the resultsof their scientific investigations in order for scientists aroundthe world to be able to collaborate in the characterization of thehuman genome and development of therapeutic and diagnosticproducts."

Venter will be chairman of IGR's board of trustees andpresident and chief executive officer of the institute. Anindependent board of trustees will be named during the next12 months.

Venter was involved in a controversy last fall when the NIHfiled for patent protection covering thousands of partial genesequences that Ventor discovered while at the NIH's Instituteof Neurological Disorders and Stroke. That attempt to patentpartially expressed human genes enraged James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who felt it could deter asharing of scientific information. The patent effort also figuredin Watson's decision to resign last April as head of the HumanGenome Organization.

The NIH's application is still pending at the U.S. Patent Office.NIH officials have said it will solicit public opinions beforedeciding if it will pursue or withdraw the application.

-- Steve Usdin BioWorld Washington Bureau

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