Cloners go east
The combination of favorable regulations for human embryonic stem (ES) cell research and economic incentives to biotech companies are luring big-name US and UK scientists to the East. Alan Colman, one of the UK scientists responsible for cloning Dolly, has left his post as director of Edinburgh-based PPL Therapeutics to become chief scientific officer of ES Cell International in Singapore—one of the few companies to hold human ES cell lines approved for use by US government-funded scientists. Meanwhile Tony Perry and Teruhiko Wakayama, currently with Advanced Cell Technology, Inc., will soon be moving to the RIKEN Institute of Japan. “Facilities, enthusiasm, and the level of support are so attractive that it was difficult to walk away from the opportunity,” says Perry, who joins RIKEN in June. Colman says he left PPL because the company's focus is to get products to the market, whereas his interests lie in using stem cells to treat diabetes. By moving to ESI, Colman will be able to start working immediately with existing ES cell lines—work that will be eligible for US funding if carried out with US collaborators and with US-approved cells. Unlike US-funded scientists, he will also be free to develop new lines that might be more useful in therapy. Countries like Singapore and Japan are clearly interested in moving stem cell technologies forward and may benefit from the restrictive regulations in the US. “Right across biotech, it's been a tough twelve months,” says Perry, “in the area of stem cell technologies and assisted reproduction, things are doubly uncertain, with the prevailing political climate in the US”. In addition, these countries are making huge investments in research. The generous level of support at RIKEN allows new investigators to explore experimental work unconstrained by grant writing. The Singapore government has set up a US$600 million fund to promote private research in biomedicine. So far, the fund has invested in ESI, as well as projects with pharmaceutical giants Novartis and Eli Lilly.
Debate over access continues
Should publicly-funded institutions license bioinformatic tools from genome companies to interpret genomic data that is freely available on the Web? Can an author of a scientific paper negotiate with a journal how much data to reveal or make available publicly? Scientists continue to grapple with these kinds of questions a little over a year after Science published Celera Genomics's human genome sequence, allowing the company to place limits on access to and use of its data. According to a recent poll carried out by The Science Advisory Board on an online panel of over 1,000 life scientists, 38% of scientists approve of paying for access to genome companies' offerings if doing so will give them an advantage, whereas 41% disapprove of the practice and root for the development of comparable tools by government-funded researchers. According to the Board's director of communications, Tamara Zemlo, the survey was inspired by ongoing discussions on one of the Board's online forums regarding the decision by The Wellcome Trust, the world's largest scientific philanthropy, not to pay for subscriptions to Celera's database, which would allow full access to its databases and the tools to analyze them.
The results of the poll were released a few days after the National Academy of Sciences hosted a workshop on “Community Standards for Publication-Related Data and Materials”—another project inspired by Celera's deal with Science. Eric Lander, the MIT geneticist involved in the government-funded genome sequencing effort, said in his keynote speech that the current publication system evolved to allow scientists to build on prior knowledge and that allowing restrictions or limitations on access to published data should only be considered if they would lead to greater knowledge. Speaking mostly about database information, Lander said that restrictions to access would, in the long run, limit knowledge. Data should be “disclosed fully and be freely available,” he said repeatedly. (Audio files from the workshop, including Lander's speech, are available at http://nationalacademies.org/standards.) The workshop was part of the data-gathering exercise that will lead to a publication, due in July 2002, that will establish the responsibilities of authors of scientific papers and possible development of standards for data sharing.
Environmental effects of regulation
The release of transgenic plants in the environment has been one of the most contentious applications of recombinant DNA technology—barring human safety issues, one of the main concerns is the possibility that transgenic plants might compete with and replace existing plant varieties. A report just issued by a US National Research Council (NRC) committee, entitled Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation (http://books.nap.edu/books/0309082633/html/1.html), recommends more rigorous oversight of the effects of genetically engineered plants. In the US, transgenic plants grown outside the laboratory must be approved by the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The NRC report finds that the APHIS review is too limited in scope and backed by too few resources to allow for “adequate assessment of the status and trends of the nation's biological resources.” Stepped-up review is warranted for the potential effects of large-scale commercialization of transgenic crops, including the use of trained observers to assess the long-term impact of these crops, as well as a determination of the possible environmental effects of introducing several transgenes into single-crop varieties. The committee suggests that their recommendations be incorporated into the regulatory framework to be used to enforce the Plant Protection Act of 2000. The report also cautions that, although the authority of APHIS stops at the US border, the impact of US policy will be felt in neighboring countries as well, in ways that sometimes have little to do with transgenic technology. Indeed, The New York Times has outlined the dramatic effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on maize production in Mexico. The competitive advantage enjoyed by American agribusiness has threatened the livelihoods of Mexican farmers in the eastern state of Michoacán, where corn was first cultivated. A recent story quotes Alejandro Nadal, professor at the Colegio de México, who argues that the collapse of local corn growing will also put at risk the genetically robust corn varieties that are native to Mexico's central highlands. Patterns of economic activity, it seems, can sometimes loom larger than technology when it comes to the fate of indigenous genetic resources.