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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.

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? HAVE YOUR SAY

Scientists should quit messing around with our genetics.

Jared, USA
Scientists should quit messing around with our genetics. We are all individuals, and scientists are taking science too far. They should concentrate more on cancer or aids, for that matter any disease. God made us all individuals so that no one person or thing would be the same. Why change this?
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.
Jared, USA

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.
After all, the costs of getting new drugs approved for use in humans is increasing every year, and if the public want new drugs for the treatment of diseases, and continual development of new drugs, companies need to be able to re-coup development costs and secure a profit to allow future development. It is going to be hard for governments to formulate legislation to deal with the complex issues raised by the human genome project, but they must start soon, and be decisive.
Dr Rob Smith, South Africa



The current argument is really a side show to the main subject of patents and intellectual property (IP) rights in the future.

Dr Jon B, Sweden
The current argument is really a side show to the main subject of patents and intellectual property (IP) rights in the future. Celera are obviously banking on being able to patent certain gene sequences that have known causal effects on the activation of certain diseases. It is their way of making money on future techniques to eliminate disease without having to do the work themselves.
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.
Andrew Day, UK

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.
Andy Ross, UK

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?
Dr Michael Boyce, Canada



The effects of this colossal battle may not be known for years.

Benjamin Godfrey, UK
The effects of this colossal battle may not be known for years. It could be our basic human rights that are being bought by private investors like Ventor. Despite his belief that patenting is a protection of his work from pirates, the ownership of genes will delay, even prevent the treatment of inherited diseases. While a battle is being fought out in courtrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, we, the waiting many, are facing the prospect of a frightening control over our very existence. It is vital our government act soon, if not to inform us of the genome project's findings. And why was the Human Genetics Advisory Commission disbanded last year?
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.
Sophie Pollard, UK

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?
Richard T. Ketchum, USA



I think that the private sector should be kept away from health research.

Arianne Churchill, UK
Ethically I agree with the public sector making their information freely available. The small private sectors do have to make money and they are obviously using these claims to undermine the work of the public sector scientists. If it had not of been for the work already done and released then I am sure the private sector scientists would not be at the level they claim to be now.
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?
Soon there will be two camps on this issue: Those who want to develop this technology to it's furthest imaginable possibilities and those who want to limit it for their own moral or spiritual reasons. Let's just hope that neither of these are work camps, eh?
Jeff Gray, United States



It's going to happen regardless of what people say, same as human cloning ... Who's going to stop them?

Wil Brown, Scotland
Everyone talks about the scientific benefits or the moral stance of mapping the human genome. It's going to happen regardless of what people say, same as human cloning. Even if governments make a stance and ban the practice, in 10 years, the software and computing power will be available to home users to do it themselves. Who's going to stop them?
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.
Henry Desmond, USA



They were not invented, this is not intellectual property. This IS A HUMAN BEING!

David Alford, USA
I think this is all very sad. These genes should be made free to anyone who wanted to work with them, how can you own a part of everyone? They were not invented, this is not intellectual property. This IS A HUMAN BEING! I think if Craig Venter decodes the human genome, then the world governments must remember they are the ones that control the patent and copyright laws. They should do the right thing regardless of pressure from business.
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.
This is the time for science to prove that it works for the common good.
Mr. B. Maffin, UK

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.
Stefan Wessels, Sweden

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.
To be honest it bothers me less about who makes/completes the study, and more as to whether the information will be public property - so what is contained in all of us cannot be held to ransom by a profit seeking company.
Ian Johnston, UK



Often the greatest minds fail to master humility.

William Edwards, UK
It does appear that Celera are guarded about their work, and as a private company, they have to make money at the end of the day. One can't make money by giving a product away for free. The Sangar Centre however, while benefiting from public funding, does leave itself open to politics and credit taking, rather than getting on with it - 15 years is too long, if it can be done in under 3. The root cause of all this is pride. Often the greatest minds fail to master humility.
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.
Paul McGrath, UK

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!
Kristian, Canada



IMO it is ridiculous that anyone could "patent" any gene sequence that they haven't created.

Mike, New Zealand
IMO it is ridiculous that anyone could "patent" any gene sequence that they haven't created. Certainly they should be able to patent their research, but if someone else can "discover" the sequence through independent research then they should be allowed to use the info that they have so gained. I predict a great deal of trouble arising from "ownership" of genes.
Mike, New Zealand

For several years I did University 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.
There is a crucial difference between public and private funding. Private funding consists of throwing ample money at the problem you know needs solving. Public funding consists of ensuring that no-one gets more than a fair share, and everyone gets some funding, no matter how pointless the problem they are working on. Transcribing the human genome is not original science. It essentially consists of applying known techniques in an assembly line fashion. We all know that private industry is best at that. Let public research go back to doing original science, and leave applications to private companies that know how to do applications extremely well.
Jon Livesey, USA



To be a scientist does not necessarily mean that one is intellectually hones

Angel Lamuno, Mexico
To be a scientist does not necessarily mean that one is intellectually honest, precisely in the same way as being a nun or a priest does not necessarily make one a pious worshiper of the true god.
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.
P. Boase, Canada

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? Yes. Forget knowledge is power - use it to cure. If genes interact like these two then who knows what effect one has on the other!
Kevin Jones, United Kingdom

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.
Chai Dek Chiun, Malaysia



Ho-hum, another day in science!

Jack Gordon, UK
There seems to be a lot of confusion over DNA and intellectual property. I don't see the logic in patenting DNA as such, but I do with products coming from the study of DNA. All the arguments are over who owns what and its fuelled by a largely ignorant fear among the public which politicians naturally play on in search of power. Ho-hum, another day in science.
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.
Rodney Lamb MSc, United Kingdom

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.
Paul Tozer, England

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.
Paul Tozer, England

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.
Ron Homan, USA

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.
Richard Holt, UK



The only reason that a PRIVATE organisation will be doing this research is for commercial gain

Mike Bird, UK
It all comes down to Money. We all understand that the only reason that a PRIVATE organisation will be doing this research is for commercial gain, that inevitably involves patenting the various code sequences responsible for attributes. What we need to realise is that we are dealing with very 'stuff' of life here for the Human Race. Do we really trust a company to be totally altrustic when they're holding onto the pattern for, lets say, susceptability to breast cancer, to just let anyone use the data? No they're going to want to make money out of the information and the right to utilise that information. No one company or organisation should have any right to any part of the human genome. Companies should be prevented by international law from patenting any part, and any existing patents should be reviewed.
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
Duncan McDonald, Canada

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.
Han de Min, Netherlands (now UK)

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...
Hal Hildebrand, USA



No matter which side reaches the finishing line, we all would benefit.

Dr Riz Rahim, USA
Since the private and public sectors traditionally represent divergent interests, the argument and the claims on which group can do a better job of deciphering human genome and faster are nothing new.
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.
Dave, USA



My genome is my genome and I prohibit anybody to decipher it except earth or furnace when that time comes.

Mikko Toivonen, Finland
I believe the bitter argument comes from the search of fame and money. I also think that both of the highly qualified doctors do not know what they are talking about. My belief is that even with fully allocated resources to genome study all researchers are still years if not decades away from full working encoding of the human genome.
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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