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July 14, 2000


Is Craig Venter's style of privately funded science the way forward? Steve Farrar opens our four-page preview of next week's 'Beyond the Genome' conference by asking the US scientist about the post-genome era.

Craig Venter tells the story of an academic who, shortly after joining his Institute for Genomic Research in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in the United States, was seen wandering the building with a tape measure. He was, apparently, trying to gauge the relative rank of his new colleagues from the amount of office space they had been allotted.

"That's how status was measured in the academic institution he came from," Dr Venter says. "Academic scientists are very territorial in every way. We'll find a combination of genes someday that relates to that."

The chief executive of Celera Genomics feels this particular trait could cost academe dearly if it wants to retain its relevance in the exciting days sure to follow the historic completion of the "working draft" of the human genome.

He certainly believes territorialism contributed much to the near-hysterical reaction that greeted his announcement two years ago that his company would beat the publicly funded Human Genome Project (HGP) to our species' entire genetic code. He had blatantly strayed into territory they held to be their own. Worse still, he was clearly getting results that posed a threat to their research grants.

Dr Venter may have played a key role in delivering the genetic definition of humanity with its promise of a medical revolution, but as the effort became framed as a race between two teams of scientists ideologically poles apart, he became the target for much bitter recrimination.

Some of the most barbed comments came from among the ranks of the HGP. They questioned his financial motives, the ethics of his venture and even the quality of his science. He responded by accusing the project of wasting vast sums of public money while pushing his own effort towards greater heights. "There was a lot of rhetoric because people felt we were threatening their budgets," he says. "It got very personal. The good thing is that most people rose above it in the end."

Indeed, when the working draft was announced on June 26, a truce had been negotiated and former foes stood side by side to smile for the world's cameras. Squabbling would not be allowed to upset one of science's finest hours.

Yet with an uneasy peace seemingly now in effect, Dr Venter believes academe needs to reflect on an important aspect of the debacle - the importance of privately funded science.

It goes beyond recognising the central role of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in getting the benefits of medical discoveries to the people who need them. Industry can do big science. Not only that, it can do it well - maybe even better than the public sector.

"I don't think basic science is the purview of the academic community any more. I've seen good and bad science and good and bad behaviour in all the environments I've worked in. Right now, because of the costs and environments involved, I couldn't have built the kind of organisation and scientific facility I have here in Rockville as part of an academic institution," he says.

Although the sharp divide between academe and industry has blurred since Dr Venter was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, in the 1970s, he complains that there is still a "holier than thou" attitude towards the private sector that he finds deeply discourteous.

The row over the genome just exposed a fundamental unwillingness to accept this modern reality on the part of some academics, he says.

Looking back at the events of the past month, Dr Venter can be forgiven for sounding rather triumphant. Not only has he lifted biology's holy grail, he has also watched the HGP drop its objections to cooperating with Celera in any way until there is an agreement to make all sequences freely available.

In fact, Celera still retains a three-month delay on releasing its data, which gives the company's scientists and its mostly corporate subscribers a head start on identifying - and ultimately patenting - the genes that might lead to the creation of lucrative new drugs.

In addition, despite the joint announcement, it seems Celera is well ahead with its sequencing and is likely to add the plant arabidopsis and the mouse to the fruit fly in its catalogue of model organism genomes by the year end.

There are many new projects planned to move beyond the genome, including an exciting new partnership with Geron, the biotechnology company that holds the rights to the Roslin Institute's cloning technology.

Despite this, Celera is hardly making big bucks yet. It does not expect to turn a profit for several years, though with $1.4 billion investment, the bulk of which is still in the bank, it is hardly facing financial hardship.

So far, several dozen human gene patents have been filed, on the advice of the firm's pharmaceutical partners, but Dr Venter points out that this is dwarfed by the thousands of gene patents filed by other firms every month. Anyhow, according to Dr Venter, patents are vital to protect the financial outlay required to develop genetic science into potential therapies.

"There's a lot of companies out there trying to abuse the system," he says. "Celera is not one of them."

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