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Dr Francis Collins
"We have 80% of the genome publicly available"
 real 28k

Dr Michael Hayden, HGM 2000 chair
"There should be no "toll booths" to the raw data"
 real 28k

Prof Norton Zinder, Celera adviser
"Celera will make raw data available"
 real 28k

The BBC's Ian Gunn
"The human genome project has enormous implications "
 real 28k

Monday, 10 April, 2000, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Caution urged over genome hype
Scientists have attempted to deflate what they see as the hype now surrounding the quest to decode the human genetic blueprint.

I think there is a convergence between the public and private sectors towards the view that the raw sequence should not be patented

Dr Michael Hayden, HGM 2000 chair
The work is being pursued by both publicly-funded agencies and private companies in what many commentators have described as a race.

Only last week, the US firm Celera Genomics claimed to have finished the first step in sequencing the genes of one person.

But at a conference of geneticists in Vancouver at the weekend, the chief of the publicly-funded Human Genome Project said people should not get overexcited by Celera's announcement.

'Careful in our language'

"You should not take at face value any claim by any group for at least two years that says 'we have finished sequencing a human genome sequence'. It will not be true," Dr Francis Collins told reporters prior to the start of the Human Genome Meeting 2000.

Dr Collins said Celera was only able to make its announcement because it had reduced the numbers of reviews conducted on each new piece of data. Celera itself said it still needed to process the data and survey other individuals to check the information was correct.

But Dr Collins added: "All of us need to be very careful in our language. When somebody says 'done' or 'finished' or 'completed', you need to ask them what their definition is because the answers may be very interesting."

The public collaborative effort, which includes 16 institutions in the US, UK, France, Canada, Germany and Japan, makes its data freely available by posting deciphered code on the net every 24 hours. The group recently announced that it had sequenced two thirds of the code that is the human blueprint. It promised a "working draft" of 90% of the "book of life" in June.

'Ownership' of the genome

In the past, these researchers have questioned the intentions of private companies, accusing them of trying to gain "ownership" of the genome by filing for patents.

They have called on companies like Celera to open up its data to scrutiny. The company has promised to do this once it has finished its decoding effort.

The last few months have witnessed some very bitter public statements and seen an intervention from US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called on all raw data to be made public but reaffirmed the importance of patents as a way to fund expensive research.

Dr Michael Hayden, the chair of HGM 2000, said the arguments were moving all parties towards a consensus.

'There is a convergence'

"I think there is a convergence between the public and private sectors," he told the BBC. "There is a slight difference in emphasis, but I think there is a convergence towards the view that the raw sequence should not be patented but that there should be an opportunity to patent genes of known function with utility."

And Dr Hayden, who is also a professor of genetics at the University of British Colombia, said the dispute should not be allowed to overshadow the extraordinary efforts of all parties.

"In four billion years of evolution, we've never had the opportunity to contemplate the recipes of the strands of sequence that represent and encode all the functions that make us who we are.

"We're on the verge of having that for the human, and that will set the stage for medical research for the coming century."

More than 600 genetics researchers from around the world have gathered in Vancouver, Canada for a three-day HGM 2000 conference. They will discuss both recent findings and the social and legal questions arising from their work.

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See also:

30 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
June target for human genome
23 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Small fly makes history
08 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Gene company wants to share
06 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Gene firm labelled a 'con job'
27 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Human gene patents defended
03 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Book of life: Chapter one
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