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Project reaps in more US$ 5 million

FAPESP and Ludwig publish results and widen their investment

FAPESP and the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute – the funding agencies for the Human Cancer Genome Project – are sharing with the international scientific community the data obtained on the sequencing of the active genes in cancer tumors. The major parts of the raw data, as it is called the grouping of letters corresponding to the nucleotides obtained with the sequencing of genes, are already available on the Internet, at the largest international public data bank, the GenBank.

The success of the project has led FAPESP and the Ludwig Institute to invest, up until the end of this year, a further US$ 5 million into the project, totaling some US$ 20 million, the double of the money initially forecast. The disclosure of the research results and the new investments were announced in São Paulo on the 21st of July, during a press conference at the Bandeirantes Palace. “We’re doubling the investments in order to double the conquests” stated the State governor Mário Covas.

Since March of 1999, the starting date of the Cancer Genome Project, the researchers have obtained some 500,000 fragments of sequences of human gene expressed in breast, intestine, stomach, head, neck and other tumors. Of this total, 280,000 have already been deposited with the GenBank. Currently Brazil is the country that is the second largest producer of sequences derived from cancer and the third largest of the world in terms of human ESTs (Expressed Sequence Tags). It only loses out to the North American projects of CGAP (Cancer Genomic Anatomy Project), which has 990,000 and that of MERC, at the Washington University that has produced 600,000 sequences. The forecast of the Brazilian Cancer Genome coordination is to generate by the end of the year one million sequences.

The technique used for the sequencing of the genome – baptized as Orestes – was developed in Brazil by Dr. Andrew Simpson, the project’s coordinator, and by the biologist from the State of Minas Gerais, Emmanuel Dias Neto who is 33 years of age. The Orestes technique came about during the task of selecting, cloning, sequencing and observing the results of each one of the genes identified in the research of the genetic variability of Schistosoma mansoni, the objective of the doctorate thesis of the young researcher Dias Neto, who was under Simpson’s supervision. The resources of bioinformation technology at that time were not available, but they got closer and closer to rare genes and to their exact location, which allowed them, for example, to identify a particular protein. The technique was perfected during the analysis of 10,000 sequences of breast tumor, financed by the Ludwig Institute and FAPESP. This fact, due to the positive results, led the agencies to propose the development of the project on a large scale.

Results publication
The scientists responsible for the project do not fear that with the publication of the data, even in its raw form, damage the Brazilian researchers. “The important thing is to make advances in search of a cure, and the sooner it comes, the better”, said Simpson. Before being made available to the public data bank, the information passed through a process that conferred to it a quality criterion, assuring the correctness of what was being released. In the course of this process, the researchers were already making predictions about the genes function, which gives them a certain competitive edge in relation to others who observe the genes for the first time in the public data bank.

The publication of the data from the Human Cancer Genome Project through the GenBank makes a point of the financing institutions in relation to genetic research: when the data becomes public domain nobody can any longer patent it, nor even rediscover an isolated gene. “This is a type of ‘sabotage’ against those who do not adopt the same position as ourselves”, explains José Fernando Perez, the scientific director of FAPESP. “What should or should not be patented is a discussion that must take place in congresses. Our duty is to produce the scientific data and to pass it on to humanity”, adds Simpson.

Both FAPESP and the Ludwig Institute have adopted the position of the acceptance of the patenting of genes, as long as that they are complete and their function is understood. “We’re in favor of patenting inventions. We’ll only carry out gene patenting when we understand its practical use and how it functions. We don’t want to patent a string of letters or nature itself”, completes Perez. In his opinion, one of the challenges of FAPESP’s Genome Program as a whole and in particular the Genome Cancer Project, is to advance in the discussion on the patents issue. “We cannot remain in a situation that inhibits investment into biotechnology in the country because we’re going to adopt a position different from that of developed countries’, he says. Perez was referring to the possibility of the patenting of fragments of genes, allowed in the United States and Britain, although the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, have shown themselves in favor of patenting entire genes and with a well defined function.

FAPESP has already patented nine genes discovered through the Genome Project of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa. The patented genes are related to the production of xantham  gum, a thickener used in the food industry. “If hadn’t registered the patent, some food company could have done it themselves”, justifies Perez. “We’re patenting inventions, genes with a known function and with a practical use.” In the Human Cancer Genome Project there are already some genes being considered, but as yet not one of them has been patented.

In order to look after the protection of intellectual property of the original inventions that is finances, FAPESP created the Center of Patenting and Licensing of Technology (Nuplitec in the Portuguese acronym). “We’re learning how it works. Brazil has an enormous lack of patents. South Korea deposits in the USA close to 1,500 patents per year and Brazil a mere 30. We have very few academic patents because the researcher doesn’t know how to go about it. We need to create a culture that values intellectual ownership”, said Perez.

The next step will be to begin the study of the Clinical Cancer Gemone whose forecast budget will be US$ 1 million. In the first stage the genes that can be used as markers in diagnostics and prognostics, will be analyzed, as well as their predisposition in diverse human tumors. From that point on, the researchers are going to concentrate on individual patients. The idea is to analyze the genes associated with cancer, which will permit the elaboration of a more adequate treatment for each patient, improving the diagnosis. “If the illness is identified sooner, it is possible to make use of tools that we already have and increase the incidence of cure”, says Simpson.

To access the GenBank on the Internet click here. This gets one into the Home Page of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which has links to the GenBank.