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Interview

Tim Hubbard: An applauded position

Englishman from the genome Public Consortium, Tim Hubbard defends research in Third World countries and supports human rights and patents

Head of the group at the Sanger Center, the British right arm of the Public Consortium for the human genome, Dr. Tim Hubbard was highly applauded for his speech at the BIG Conference. With a posture opposite to that of the previous speaker, Dr. Gene Myers, the Head of Bioinformatics of the company Celera, Dr. Hubbard conquered the audience by emphatically defending public access to the data on the human genome and by exhorting less developed countries to carry out research and to develop their own medicines.

For a peripheral country such as this on which we are standing, of what value are the genome projects?
Well, you have already entered the club. You have generated information recognized internationally in the form of ESTs (expressed sequence tags). This conference, with so many people from abroad, is a form of recognition of this work. To carry out a genome project wasn’t just something trivial. Above all else, it was necessary to invest in an infra structure. Every country should have an understanding about the genome as well as intellectual capital which is fundamental for this century. In the end, each nation has its own interests and specific necessities, such as, for example, to research as a priority the sicknesses and agricultural pests that plague them.

By the amount of money invested in the sequencing and the study of genomes, can one say that the cost of drugs and treatments resulting from the research, will be high?
Yes, but there is a way of getting round the problem. You yourselves can develop the treatments. Countries must carry out research in order to have the capacity and the infra structure for this. There are many areas, thought not to be commercially attractive, that can be tackled. The central point of public policies should be to maximize the benefits of the investments in research. One need to give incentives.

Are you against patents in the area of medicine?
For me, it is a matter of human rights. If we analyze the situation of Aids in Africa, it is devastating the continent. In Brazil, your situation should still be seen as worrying. However, we have efficient drugs for the control of the illness, we know how they are made and the process is not expensive. The only problem is intellectual ownership that inflates the price. Behind this are the patents, an important component of the world’s economic structure. However, one cannot forget that there are areas of economic activity regulated by other forms, without the principle of intellectual ownership. Perhaps we should look at the question of drugs in another manner.

How did you view the dispute between the Celera company and the Public Consortium, in trying to be the first to  finish  an initial version of the human genome?
We knew that we had a mission. At a certain moment in time we were challenged by Celera, an aggressive company. They tried to have the Public Consortium stopped, saying that we should be working with the genome of the mouse, We were worried about not sleeping on the job at that point. If we had stopped, at the end of the story we would not have had any human genome ready. Celera needed the data from the Public Consortium for their model. By luck, we carried on.

It is being said that the human genome is a thing of the past, and that now the new order of the day is the proteome. Will it be necessary to have new software in order to study the proteome?
There are lots of tools on hand for proteins, I would say even more advanced than those of genomics. However, we will have to compare lots of genomes in order to try to understand the structure and the workings of the proteins. Making a comparison, you can transfer functions. In order to understand our body, what illnesses are, how to treat them, we will need to have a large understanding about how the cells work. To arrive at this level, we will need a computing system that shows how all of the cellular components are integrated. It is something that will be very difficult to develop. However, as we know that there are lots of similarities of the function between organisms, if we sequence the DNA of various species we can extract experimental evidence of one and relate it to another. Many companies are researching the structure of the proteins. Their experience shows that, for each organism in particular, it is only possible to obtain 40% of the structures of the proteins. However, if you relate the information on an organism with that of another, you could get up to 80% of the structures.

What organisms should be mapped in order to make these comparisons? The chimpanzee? The mouse?
The chimpanzee is very close to us, and for that reason we are not likely to learn much from it. As for the mouse, the current discussion points towards the possibility that it is even more distinct from us than we had imagined. Therefore, there is now much more interest in an intermediary, possibly farm animals such as the cow or the pig. To sequence organisms is relatively easy. What is interesting is to work with biology on a large scale, to carry out experiments with chips that show the expressive genes and which proteins are used by an organism in a determined situation. This is the important work for bioinformatics.

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