SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
San Diego, CALIF. — Gina Kolata reports that the company that deciphered the human genome has just submitted a paper for publication. But in a highly unusual move, the company will not be adhering to the customary practice of simultaneously depositing its gene sequence data in a public repository freely available to all.
Instead, the company, Celera Genomics, will put the data on its Web site, making them available to researchers free and to companies for a fee.
The arrangement, announced by Celera and the editor of the journal Science, who said the paper would be published early next year, highlights the tricky financial issues that accompany the new era of genome research. Celera wants to sell its data. But scientific journals are committed to making all data related to its papers public.
So how, Science’s editors had asked, could they satisfy these conflicting goals? And did they want to set a precedent?
Dr. Donald Kennedy, a Stanford University professor of environmental science who is editor of Science, said the issue arose in June when Celera and the publicly financed Human Genome Project were on the verge of announcing that they had each determined virtually the entire sequence of the genetic script that makes up a human being. Dr. Kennedy wanted to publish papers from the two groups describing this achievement.
Ordinarily, the authors of such a paper would be expected to put all their data into GenBank, a database maintained by the National Institutes of Health. The Human Genome Project had been putting its data there all along, as it acquired the genetic sequences. But Celera would not put its data in GenBank, saying it feared that other companies, including its competitors, could simply take the fruits of its work free, even annotating and selling the entire human genome sequence.
“The bottom line,” Dr. Samuel Broder, Celera’s executive vice president for medical affairs, said, “is that we want to make sure that the work and considerable effort is put to the benefit of the people who took the risk to invest in Celera. Therefore, we don’t want to set up a system where other database providers can repackage the data and sell it on their own.”
And companies that want to use the data for commercial purposes, Dr. Broder said, “should bear their fair share of the cost.”
Other companies have declined to publish commercially valuable genetic sequence data, not writing papers at all, and selling the data instead. “We’re trying to run a business here, not put things in Science magazine,” said Roy Whitfield, the chief executive of Incyte Genomics, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., that has genetic sequences of individual human genes.
But the human genome sequence papers were widely thought to be of historic importance, scientists said. So, Dr. Kennedy said, he spent months listening to researchers with opinions on what he should require Celera to do. He relied on neutral negotiators to serve as go-betweens.
“We heard from a number of people saying, `What are you doing? What are you up to?” Dr. Kennedy said. “Are you going to violate the traditional norms of scientific publication?’ ” He said leaders of the public genome project told him that whether they would publish in Science or a competing journal depended on whether they were comfortable with Science’s decision about Celera’s data.
Dr. Kathy Hudson, assistant director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said that the group was submitting its paper on the findings of publicly financed genome project on Thursday, but that it would not say where.
In the end, the compromise solution was for Celera to agree to allow scientists to use the data and to download parts of them with no restrictions. If researchers make a commercially important discovery using the Celera data, they do not have to give Celera any rights to their inventions. Companies that want to use the data for research purposes may do so, but they must agree not to redistribute them or to transfer them.
In addition, Science stated in a news release that it would hold a copy of the data in escrow to make sure they would remain publicly available.
Not everyone is satisfied. Dr. Eric Lander, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was one of the leaders in the Human Genome Project, said, “Science magazine seems confused about the purpose of scientific publication.”
“If authors can restrict the ways that readers can use knowledge,” Dr. Lander added, “the pace of discovery will be slowed and the public will lose,”
Others objected that the Celera agreement could be setting a dangerous precedent for the Balkanization of databases. They said they should be able to go to one place – GenBank – to compare genetic data.
“Some say that if Celera wants to publish, they should make their data available on that basis,” Dr. David Baltimore, a molecular biologist and president of the California Institute of Technology, said. “They say that if the need for commercialization is so important, then don’t publish. Don’t get the accolades of publication.”