Setback for the genome project

May 1, 1998

ITALIAN biologist Renato Dulbecco, Nobel prize winner for medicine in 1975 for his research on DNA-cancer links and one of the most revered names in Italian scientific research, has said he may return to the United States because the research project he was invited back to Italy to direct is no longer receiving public funds.

"The Genome Project is dead," he told a conference in Rome. "Financing has stopped, my contract with the National Research Council expires in June. I may return to the Salk Institute in California."

Professor Dulbecco's protests, coming from one of Italy's most illustrious scientists, have opened a fresh wound in Italy's already ailing research establishment and prompted conciliatory remarks from university and research minister Luigi Berlinguer.

Professor Dulbecco won the Nobel prize while at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London, sharing it with David Baltimore and Howard Martin Temin for their research on the interaction of tumour viruses and genetic interaction of the cell.

He left Italy after the second world war and worked at Caltech and the Salk Institute in California before moving on to the United Kingdom.

In 1990 Professor Dulbecco was offered the job of directing Italy's pioneering genome project to try mapping DNA.

He was hailed as the returning Italian genius who would inject new drive into biomedical research, and it was taken for granted that his project would receive substantial funding.

The funding turned out to be only 2 billion lire (about Pounds 670,000) a year. Gradually, other countries joined the project, considered of enormous potential in fighting cancer and other illnesses, with vastly superior financing.

But since 1995 the project has received no Italian government funds and has survived only thanks to support from private institutions such as the Cariplo Bank Foundation in Milan.

Paolo Vezzoni, one of Professor Dulbecco's closest colleagues at Milan's Institute for Advanced Biomedical Technologies, said: "This is part of the disaster of Italian research. We are working in a highly competitive field, and we are handicapped. It is like running the 100 metres with a 20 kilo knapsack on your back."

Professor Berlinguer was quick to react to the protests. He publicly asked Professor Dulbecco to have patience, admitted the dearth of funding for finalised projects, and promised that parliament would vote lavish special funding for the project.

But a year ago Professor Dulbecco made a similar protest, threatening to return to America, and Professor Berlinguer had already promised to provide funding for the project. This funding never materialised.

"It is sad that to reach any kind of discussion of the issue, one is forced to make all this public fuss," Dr Vezzoni said.

"The fact is that Italy, where the Genome Project originated, cannot provide even 2 billion lire, while France and the UK are spending about 20 billion each and the United States 300 billion."

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