Human Genome Rivals May Unite

5:00 PM EST; November 14, 1999; New York (AP) -- The public and private rivals racing to decode the human genetic blueprint are discussing collaborating on the effort, The New York Times reported Sunday. An international public consortium is competing with a privately funded effort by Rockville, MD-based Celera Genomics. Genes discovered by the federal researchers are released immediately into the public domain, but those discovered by the private enterprise can be patented for exclusive use.

While discussions have been held, the public consortium's policy on immediately releasing its data would be hard to change, said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health's arm of the project. The institutes and the Wellcome Trust of London are the principal members of the public consortium. Celera has already applied for 6,500 patents on genes the company says it has identified, prompting criticism that the patents, if approved, may prevent other scientists from conducting research while allowing Celera to profit at the public's expense.

The Times report follows one last month by a British newspaper, The Guardian, that President Clinton was involved in discussions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that would oblige laboratories to waive their patent rights. Celera executive Dr. Paul Gilman told the Times that Celera's president, Dr. J. Craig Venter, supported collaboration but that no specific proposal was under consideration. Celera has said it will be able to complete the sequencing of the human genome ahead of the public project for $200 million, as opposed to the $3 billion price tag for the public project. There was no additional comment Sunday from Collins; calls to his office were not immediately returned.