- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

A researcher at the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Human Genome Project is disputing the accuracy of Celera Genomics' decoded DNA sequence, fueling a long-running feud between the two projects that have worked toward mapping the human genetic makeup.

Rockville, Md.-based Celera said Thursday it had decoded 99 percent of the human DNA and that within three to six weeks it would have the assembled map, which would help scientists discover causes of diseases and find treatments for them.

Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project said at a biotechnology conference in Canada yesterday that Celera's effort falls short, the Associated Press reported.

The company had said it would check its data 10 times, but did so just three times, he said.

Celera disputed the statement, saying many steps that had been planned were unnecessary because its technology worked better than anticipated.

The map of human genes lays out the sequence of the estimated 3.5 billion pairs of chemicals that make up the DNA in each human cell. Those chemical arrangements comprise the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 human genes, which in turn carry the instructions for all the body's processes.

Stock of PE Corp., Celera's parent company, fell 23 percent after Mr. Collins' remarks to close at $100 on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday. Shares had risen 24 percent Thursday after Celera's announcement.

The Human Genome Project, an international government consortium founded in 1990 under the auspices of the NIH, is costing $3 billion compared with Celera's $200 million.

Mr. Collins also said yesterday that people should recognize that neither project will be complete for at least another several years. Yet Celera claims it will have its map annotated and published by the end of the year.

Industry observers say that what lies at the heart of the dispute isn't so much accuracy as it is J. Craig Venter, a former NIH scientist who founded Celera in 1998.

Mr. Venter left NIH when Human Genome Project scientists rejected his approach to mapping the DNA sequence. With the help of PE Corp., a California pharmaceutical company, he started Celera with the goal of deciphering the genetic blueprint faster than the public project.

"[The Human Genome Project] chose a different approach … they rejected [Mr. Venter's] approach many, many years ago," said Laura Kragie, chief scientist at BioMedWorks Inc., a Silver Spring, Md., consulting firm. "And that's what the problem is there is a lot of resentment there because his approach worked and very quickly.

Scientists at the NIH project have been decoding and mapping the human genome at the same time, while Celera concentrated on decoding the sequence first and assembling it into a map later.

"They are both building on each other," she said. "And while it seems like petty fighting, the fact is that the competition has speeded things up and led to the completion of the project way ahead of time."

Celera officials said they didn't claim to be finished.

"We said we had completed the sequencing of one human, and that over the next several weeks and months we'd be assembling the genome," spokeswoman Heather Kowalski said.

While Celera's research has been kept private, all NIH work is public and its progress has been posted on the Internet. NIH scientists accused Celera last week of building on their data and then "locking it up and selling it to subscribers."

Celera has five major clients for its gene database, which pay between $5 million and $15 million a year for its use. The subscribers are Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc., Pharmacia Corp., Novartis AG and Takeda Chemical Industries Ltd.

While Celera may have used data released by the Human Genome Project, the public project in turn is using DNA sequencers developed by Celera's sister company PE Biosystems Group.

Ultimately, analysts say, it doesn't matter to the public who wins the race. Both entities will file for patents on technologies and drugs they discover, and both will sell those to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies for development.

"Whether it's a basketball game or a genomics project, it's just human nature" to be competitive, Ms. Kragie said. And like any other competition, the winner gets the credit.

Last week, analysts hailed Celera's news as a milestone with tremendous potential for medical advancement. They reaffirmed that and stressed the importance of accuracy yesterday.

"This is scientific data … you want it to be the right data," said Niva Almaula, an analyst with Mehta Partners in New York. "So how many times [Celera] has to go back and forth and check is probably the issue."

Celera recently published the complete map of a fruit fly's genetic makeup, and it now plans to do the same with a mouse. The decoded fruit fly will help scientists understand more about human anatomy because 61 percent of the fly's genes are the same as in humans.

In response to an NIH scientist's accusation that Celera does "science by press release," Ms. Kowalski said Celera announced updates on its fruit fly research through the Internet, the same publicity tactics used by the NIH.

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