France last week launched a FF1 billion (US$153 million) research effort, called GenHomme, to generate economic benefits from the post-sequencing phase of the human genome project. The programme was launched by Claude Allègre, the research minister, and Christian Sautter, the economics minister, in the presence of prime minister Lionel Jospin.
But a decision to restrict the public release of annotated data — sequences in which the structure and function of genes have been identified — may put France on a collision course with its partners in the publicly funded human genome project.
The launch took place at the Genopole, France's fledgling ‘genetics valley’, at Evry on the southern outskirts of Paris. The Genopole will be the core of the nationwide consortium of public laboratories and private companies that is being formed to run the programme.
Members of the consortium from the private sector are likely to include the pharmaceutical companies Pasteur Mérieux Connaught, Rhône-Poulenc Rorer, and biotechnology companies, including Genset and Transgene. Public-sectors members will include the National Sequencing Centre, the National Genotyping Centre, research centres in Toulouse, Strasbourg, Montpellier and Lille, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
According to Alain Henault, Allègre's technical adviser for genome affairs, the consortium will be open to all, including foreign companies, if they comply with a charter governing the terms of collaboration.
Five of the charter's six clauses concern confidentiality. One says that annotated sequences cannot be submitted to public databases before they have been subject to intellectual property protection. Another forbids participants from communicating results “either orally or in writing” without permission from their partners, who will have 60 days to decide whether to allow or delay publication.
Allègre said last week that GenHomme “clarified the position on intellectual property from the outset,” arguing that this was “important, to avoid controversy later”. But he may have been over-optimistic. Shown a copy of the charter, Jean Weissenbach, the head of the National Sequencing Centre, who has complained to Jospin about US companies holding back genome data, said that he had not seen it before and would refuse to sign it.
Pierre Tambourin, the head of the Genopole, also claimed ignorance of the charter's details. He said he was “not in agreement” with its restrictions on submissions to public databases. But Jacques Demaille, director of the science ministry's genome activities, says that the charter is not open to negotiation. “Weissenbach is under no obligation to sign it,” he says — adding that, if he refuses, he would be unable to participate in GenHomme projects.
Henault says that “collaboration with the private sector is impossible without such confidentiality clauses”. But France's robust approach to intellectual property seems likely to reopen the international debate over access to sequence data.
Axel Kahn, a prominent French geneticist, who is also deputy scientific director for health and agricultural biotechnology at Rhône-Poulenc, says that protecting annotated data is acceptable in an industrial collaboration, for example on a particular gene. But “it is highly contestable, if we are talking about protection of sequences that are publicly available and have been annotated ‘in silico’ [by computer]”.
The Bermuda agreement, which requires that all genome data be made public within 24 hours, only covers raw sequence data. But David Bentley, head of human genetics at the Sanger Centre at Cambridge in the United Kingdom, says: “I would strongly argue in favour of the open and free release of interpretation and annotation that leads to a better understanding and a more accessible genome”.
Bentley says he would “welcome clarification” from the French government, as to what it will patent. Such clarification will also be needed “to see how this would impact on the international collaborative scene after the sequence is completed”.
In 1997, Germany withdrew plans to give industry privileged access to sequence data from its national programme, after the United States, the United Kingdom and France threatened to withhold their data from German scientists and companies (see Nature 387, 536; 1997).
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The Bermuda Triangle: The Pragmatics, Policies, and Principles for Data Sharing in the History of the Human Genome Project
Journal of the History of Biology (2018)
Emerging Bioinformatic Networks: Contesting the Public Meaning of Private and the Private Meaning of Public