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Firm Stands Fast on Retaining Genetic Data

Celera president says misinformation was spread by rival group about the private company's bid to control the research.

March 08, 2000|PAUL JACOBS and PETER G. GOSSELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A private company that is racing to decipher the human genetic code accused leaders on Tuesday of a parallel, publicly funded effort of deliberately scuttling negotiations to join forces.

In a letter to representatives of the public Human Genome Project, J. Craig Venter, the president of Celera Genomics, accused them of spreading misinformation about Celera's desire to control distribution of their combined genetic research data.

He left the door open for further discussions but made it clear that the company was not going to give away its proprietary information to its competitors.

"For those looking to use our information to their financial benefit, we are unapologetic in seeking a reasonable return for our efforts," he wrote.

Venter's letter was a response to one he had received from the Human Genome Project accusing Celera and PE Corp., its parent company, of seeking a "monopoly" over the human genetic code.

In that earlier letter, leaders of the public genome project charged that the company had demanded "exclusive commercial rights of distribution" of the combined product for up to five years.

Celera was formed two years ago with the express purpose of deciphering the code faster and more cheaply than the $3-billion government-academic genome project.

The aim of both efforts is to spell out, in order, the 3 billion chemical letters in the human genetic code, a multivolumed hereditary instruction manual that is present in every cell of the body. Knowledge of the code could pave the way to new ways of treating and diagnosing a host of human diseases.

Both Celera and the public genome project have said they expect to produce "rough drafts" of the genetic code this year, to be followed in a few years by a more detailed final product.

For months now, Celera executives and negotiators for the genome project have discussed terms for a possible truce, in which they would merge their results and make them widely available, both to public and private researchers.

Representatives of the two sides met Dec. 29 in hopes of hammering out a final agreement, but Human Genome Project negotiators said they were shocked by the company's demands to maintain control over the final product, invaluable to researchers in both the public and private sector, for five years.

Venter's letter Tuesday did not provide any alternatives to that proposal, beyond stating that a combined genetic code, based on merged data, would be available to all researchers.

"The only restriction that Celera has ever requested is that other database providers would be prohibited from providing or selling Celera's data as their own," he wrote. Currently, all scientists, public and private, have free access to the publicly funded data and companies have repackaged it for sale to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

On Tuesdy, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said he plans to review Venter's latest letter with other representatives of the genome project to see whether it offered "the possibility of continued negotiations. If that is possible, we will certainly do so."

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