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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 16:38 GMT
Balancing interests in the genome race
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse
It is to be welcomed that President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair should attempt to lay out the ethical foundations of a science and industry that will undoubtedly transform healthcare in the decades to come.
The genetic revolution and its impact on mankind demands the involvement of everyone, not just scientists.
But when politicians become involved, or when scientists try to play politics, the debate can become muddled. Fears and even resentments can become as much a part of the debate as logic and scientific fact.
It is clear from the reaction of some publicly-funded scientists to the Clinton-Blair statement that they resent the idea that big business is involved in decoding the human genome, the basic instructions for life. They would rather the corporations stay out of it.
Despite the impression given in some quarters, it is a gross oversimplification to suggest that all publicly-funded scientists are good and working for the betterment of humanity and private companies are all bad and bent on secrecy for the sake of profit alone.
This assessment is a travesty of the true situation.
Fact: No private company is going to prevent human genome data being available to anyone who wants it for free. Already, two-thirds of the human genome is just a few clicks away on the internet and the rest of it will be available within months.
Celera Genomics, one of the major private companies behind the current controversy, has said, unambiguously, that they will freely release their genome data by publishing it in a major journal and making it available for download on the internet.
But besides the intellectual satisfaction of having a list, in order, of all the four kinds of DNA segments that comprise our genetic make-up, this raw data has a limited commercial value.
Look at the recently completed sequence of human chromosome 22. Scientists cannot even tell which parts of the raw DNA sequence are bundled into genes without a great deal of processing of the data.
And this is where the private companies come in. If they want to produce a genome data set with "added value" then good luck to them. If the raw data is freely available to all then companies can still compete in providing such a DNA interpretation service.
"We are an information company," said Dr Venter. "We have the world's largest civil computer to analyse the human genetic code."
In these cost conscious times, any university that relies on public money, and which saw a commercial opportunity to market its analysis of genomes, would not hesitate to make money from an advance by establishing a commercial offshoot.
Dr William Haseltine is the CEO of Human Genome Sciences, a leading private company which is gathering genome data in the hope of developing drugs. He told BBC News Online that calling for the raw data to be made public would make no difference to his business.
"Should raw genomic data be released to the public? We absolutely agree."
The question of patenting genes is a thorny one. It now seems clear that trying to patent vast tracts of DNA of unknown function will ultimately not be allowed.
"We don't think that random sequences of human DNA should be patented - that's a violation," said Dr Venter. "Only genes that will directly lead to new therapies should be patented."
In fact, Clinton and Blair do not question either the appropriateness or right of universities, governments or private companies to patent a gene, provided they have sufficient data on what it does and what its medical uses are.
HGS holds patents covering about 7,000 human genes. Dr Haseltine told us: "In order to invest in the development and testing of drugs, a patent is absolutely required. No one would develop a gene-based drug without patent protection."
Dr Haseltine noted that the awarding of a patent requires that the data is then made public. "A patent is a contract between an inventor and society - the inventor teaches society his secret of the invention and he is rewarded by a limited period of exclusivity to make and sell products based on that invention."
In order to reap the rewards of the genomic revolution, both public and private companies must be involved. Both will make public their raw data. From then on, it will be up to the market.
And I predict that in a decade some of these companies will be the medical equivalent of Microsoft - but even bigger.
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