Single nucleotide polyphormism wars?
Letter to the Editors, Nature Biotechnology, (16:120, February 1998)
Your editorial "Moving genomics from discovery to development" (Nature Biotechnology 15:963, October 1997) illustrates how pharmacogenomics, the recent avatar of pharmacogenetics-a decades-old vision of tailoring drugs to a patient's genetic makeup-is luring the limelights of the drug discovery scene, triggered by the growing amounts of data output, directly and indirectly, by the Human Genome Project. While, for some, drug discovery has now entered a "postgenomic" era (Nature Biotechnology 15:1220, November 1997), and for others "functional genomics" is the order of the day (Science 278:601-602, October 1997), there is much more at stake than meets the eye.
The feeling of urgency surrounding the promotion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) backed project of collecting single-base variations in human DNA (Science 278:1580-1581, November 1997) into publicly available databases, may be heralding a war between industry and academia. Because the latter single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) databases can be put to immediate use to accelerate the development of efficient tests to help stratify populations for trial design, they are of tremendous economical interest. Worries over the patentable character of of SNPs, and particularly of those found in protein-coding regions (cSNPs), have surfaced in academic circles. The recent joint venture between the Chicago-based drug manufacturer Abbot Laboratories and the Paris-based Genset (Nature Biotechnology 15:829, 1997), or the collaboration between Santa Clara-based biochipmaker Affymetrix and geneticist Eric Lander's lab at the Massachussets Institute of Technology, have exacerbated the feeling among academics that private companies might snap up SNPs, and specifically the less numerous cSNPs, and patent them, reaping the financial benefits and keeping smaller labs at bay.
And indeed, venture capital-backed companies such as Massachussets, Cambridge-based, Variagenics Inc. or Connecticut, New Haven-based, Genaissance Therapeutics Inc. are budding today. Their survival, however, depends on securing further private investment and thus on continuing to patent human genetic variation. The whole argument is reminiscent of the heat surrounding the Java debate in the software industry, another high-tech industry highly favored by venture capital funds. In a recent spur of litigation, suing and counter-suing archrivals computer manufacturer Sun Microsystems and software giant Microsoft started fighting for the control of the development of the Java programming language and development platform. Tension has been building up over the past year, fueled by worries from the Java developers' community that Microsoft could single-handedly alter the Java programming language by corrupting its touted "open and portable" nature-the promise of which was precisely what prompted new Java start-ups to sprout by the hundreds in the past couple of years, heftily funded by private investors.
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