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Friday, 21 April, 2000, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Science's big prize: Why the bitter arguments?
What should be celebrated as one of humankind's greatest achievements has descended into an almighty row.Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
The quest to decipher all our DNA and map out the genes that give us life has led to some bitter arguments between private and publicly funded scientists.
The private sector is critical of the time and dollars taken by the other side to complete the job. The public sector has hit back by questioning the quality of its competitors' product and of being less than open about its data and intentions.
BBC News Online has spoken to two of the main protagonists. Dr John Sulston, Director of the publicly funded Sanger Centre, UK, is part of an international group of researchers that promises a "working draft" of the human genome in June. Click here to read the interview.
Dr Craig Venter, and his Celera Genomics company, only began sequencing the letters that make up the human genetic code last year, and he promises to have the letters in the right order in the next few weeks. Click here to read his interview.
Both sides tried to come to an agreement on the sharing and release of data - but the deal fell apart. Now it is claim and counter claim.
Why do you think this great project has descended into a big row? Has the public sector been too slow? Should the private sector be more open with its data? Does it matter who actually gets to the finishing line first?
Why try to solve a small problem when you can solve a large one? Scientists should try more to solve the third world country hunger crisis by creating some sort of cheap miracle food.
It is about time that governments produced legislation that keeps genomic data in the public sector and allows access to researchers world-wide. A few companies should not hold the rights to possible cures for diseases. However, should a company produce a product to treat a disease based on information obtained from a public database, they should have the right of patent protection.
If there is one area that will have to develop because of the Human Genome project it will be the lawyers who decide the boundaries of IP (and make them a lot of money in the process).
Dr Jon B, Sweden
Is it the case that in future we will have to have a blood test and then pay royalties to various companies to use our own genes? It would be laughable if it wasn't so scary.
The UK/US governments need to make very clear, by passing appropriate legislation, that the human genome has to be public property and cannot be patented or made secret in part or in whole for commercial gain.
I'm not in a position to be able to judge
whether or not this project is going fast enough.
But I do have my reservations about researchers and
sales peoples' motivations when there activities are
tied to revenue. This is as much as to say that I believe
both parties to be suspect in the end. I mostly trust more the intentions
and the benefits of the public efforts. At least, if we are speaking on a international
basis. What I wonder is, if really in the end, whether this "benefit" will ever be something
which can accorded to humans in general, or - as is so often the case - only to those with
the money or power to purchase it?
Benjamin Godfrey, UK
It seems obvious that Dr Venter and Celera could have only one motive for not
combining their efforts with the public
sector, and that is money. The human genome
is an important resource for scientists which should
be freely available.
Why not do something novel, let both groups decode the DNA and then settle between themselves who did the best job without introducing politics into the question?
I think that the private sector should be kept away from health research or heavily scrutinised to allow free information. To help all, not just those who will be able to afford the treatment when it becomes available.
Arianne Churchill, UK
If you can fiddle with my DNA and give me buff pecs and a prize winning smile then isn't it worth the price of my everlasting soul?
Besides, BIG MONEY is involved. That's why everyone is arguing about who should do what and who should get credit or it. No doubt the USA will try to patent some genes for profit. They've practically patented everything else anyway.
Wil Brown, Scotland
No one should own this info outright. It should be public knowledge.
If a company uses the info to produce a viable product, then they should be given a maximum of 5-year patent on the product only.
David Alford, USA
Who gets to the finish line is of little importance... The reason for science is to acquire acceptable knowledge for the good of the public. Although being a scientist myself I appreciate the need for money for funding, discoveries that are as epoch making as this should be given to the world for the good of mankind, not just a single company or government.
I don't really care - as long as they get it finished - but I would be happy if Celera gets it - they've been doing most of the groundbreaking stuff it seems and I think they deserve it.
Science is a dirty political game where scientists vie for the next piece of funding, and/or a nobel prize and or some form of immortality.
William Edwards, UK
This debate is similar to one raging in the Computer industry - that of Open Source vs. Commercial 'Closed' Source.
People may want to read 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' by Eric Raymond which covers the theme of Open Information for the public good vs. 'Closed' Information for the company good.
I think (on good authority) that a proper map of the human genome is years away. Regardless, the effort to map said genome has been a co-operative effort of hundreds of different public, private and academic labs. I argue that even if a private lab publishes the genome map first that the public labs of the west should continue research until they publish their own. They should publish this for free, for all to use. No corporate giant should be making money ransoming ME back to ME!
Mike, New Zealand
For several years I
research, and I finally
gave that up when I
realised that private
industry could get
things done quicker,
didn't put me through
endless grant proposal
agony, and didn't
starve me of resources
to get the job done.
It is perhaps unfortunate that a row has erupted between private and public scientist regarding such a momentous issue for our future. It seems to me that both parts are telling some truths from what may be described as distorted and distorting perspectives and this was only to be expected. Scientists are only human and their activities should be judged within the frameworks of law and morals by all affected and concerned parties, which, in this particular case, means by all of us.
Angel Lamuno, Mexico
This would appear to be yet another example of capitalism being at cross-purposes to the public good.
The benefits of this research to mankind should be realised in the shortest possible time, be it to reduce or eliminate the effect of diseases - inherited or otherwise, and extend the expected life span of the average person. If the debate on Genetically Modified Crops or cloning is anything to go by, this will not be achieved for many decades. Does it matter who gets the sequence first? No.
Does it matter how long we take, using this knowledge, to find cures, say for Cancer and Huntington's disease?
Forget knowledge is power - use it to cure.
If genes interact like these two then who knows what effect one has on the other!
The data should be open. Opening the data is the only way to prompt the researching of the human genome and make the use of it become common.
Jack Gordon, UK
This information is to basic to be the property of a private company. The private company did not invent it nor the method of reading it, so has no just claim to own it.
How dare they?
The human genome is for too important to be "patented" by a commercial organisation.
Our future is at stake here, and when commercial interests cross the rights and health of individuals, shareholders are the only ones to benefit.
Companies are NOT philanthropic institutions, and their only consideration is the shareholders and THEY are notoriously selfish (see any carpetbagger vote for building society control).
Besides, I thought that patenting was for inventions - people actually DEVISING something.
Patent law, as I understand it, includes a "parallel development" clause - i.e. if two companies INDEPENDENTLY develop the same product, then they both can use the results of their own efforts, whichever gets there first.
This simply confirms why the government should leave as much as possible to the private sector. The dollar motive is the best there is in giving a sense of urgency to any project.
The human genome belongs to us all in the most fundamental way.
Private enterprise may be able to complete the sequencing quicker, but at what cost?
Future generations will judge us harshly if we sell our birthright for the sake of a few years.
Mike Bird, UK
This is too important to allow 1 or even 5000 companies private access .It should be who designs what from the unrestricted base that gets the dollars
Unfortunately there is so much fame at stake here that the public and private sectors are not willing to co-operate.
On top of this, they have different financial resources and budgets.
It is a crying shame that progress in this so important development stalls over these mundane issues whilst having the same mission.
A government ought possible come to the rescue and team-up both Dr. Sulston and Dr. Venter. They should share the data and jointly develop suitable applications to obtain new practical DNA information.
It's pretty obvious that the reason there's such a big, as you Brits say, "row" over this is, is because of the HUGE potential for MONEY this has.
Any large money potential, especially something this huge, will have an enormous prestige associated with being the first...
Even if Celera can beat the public effort, the larger question still remains the access and availability of that information to the scientists at large. Just as the scientists world over, Celera also continues to derive information from the public effort, but what Celera generates is not generally in public domain, free from copyright and other commercial considerations. The private companies have a right to the confidentiality of their efforts.
No matter which side reaches the finishing line, we all would benefit. But this age-old debate between the private and public sectors will go on, nonetheless!
Dr Riz Rahim, USA
The private sector is always quicker than the public. When you work for a private company they expect results. In the meantime the public research groups have no direct oversight. The only ones who really care are those that have a monetary stake in this race.
Maybe the doctors have forgotten that even banana fly genome has not been fully deciphered yet and that rice genome is deciphered only to working level. I also wish to say publicly that my genome is my genome and I prohibit anybody to decipher it except earth or furnace when that time comes.
Mikko Toivonen, Finland
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