26th April 2001

Wellcome Trust promotes open door policy of human genome treasure chest

"World's biggest free gift is still a secret"

Biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust today (Thursday 26th April) launches an advertising campaign to promote the public human genome databases, including the UK-based Ensembl service, which receives the majority of its funding from the Trust. Widespread access to the public human genome databases is essential if the Human Genome Project sequence is to be translated into healthcare benefits, says the Trust.

Dr. Mike Dexter, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "After our large-scale investment in the Human Genome Project, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the public resources are fully utilised, in order to deliver the health benefits that will undoubtedly flow from the use of this information."

The Trust has invested £8 million to set up and run Ensembl, which is managed jointly by the Wellcome Trust's Sanger Centre and the European Bioinformatics Institute (whose parent organisation, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, also provides some Ensembl support). The Trust also funded the UK contribution to the Human Genome Project with £210 million.

The campaign follows a Wellcome Trust survey which revealed that only 50 per cent of biomedical researchers using genome databases were familiar with the services provided by Ensembl and other freely accessible databases.

Mapping the human genome has been hailed as one of humanity's most important scientific discoveries and the data described as a "treasure chest" of potential targets for new drug treatment.

The advertising campaign, a first for the Wellcome Trust, will target scientists in industry and academia throughout the world, using adverts in publications such as Nature and Science.

The first advert depicts an open door to the genome data with a 'Wellcome' doormat at its foot. The strapline reads 'free unrestricted access for all'.

Dr Dexter said: "The main aim of this campaign is to encourage scientists across the world - in academia, pharmaceutical companies, and the biotechnology and computer industries - to use this free information."

He added: "Tens of thousands of researchers have already used the public databases, and our research shows that they are impressed by the quality of the information and the effectiveness of the research tools. But if we are to unlock the full potential of the human genetic map to bring health benefits for all, many more scientists must be made aware of the high-quality public data and the fact that it can be used for free.

"We now know that humans have between 30,000 and 40,000 genes, but all the medicines we know today are targeting just a few hundred of these. The potential for identifying new drug targets using information from the publicly funded genome databases is absolutely huge and the opportunity must not be wasted.

"We have worked hard to ensure that this scientific information is in public hands for the public good - we have an open door policy. The human genome data belong to everyone, including scientists in the developing and industrialised worlds," he said.

Public databases in Europe, Japan and the United States are providing genome data free of charge to the entire world. No restrictions or conditions are placed on users. The Europe-based service, Ensembl, has experienced a doubling of the number of 'hits' on its web site, following the publication of the Human Genome Project findings in Nature magazine two months ago.

The online Ensembl package tailors the genome data to the needs of researchers, helping them to make medical advances in diagnosis and to develop therapies. Latest figures show that around 5000 researchers in more than 80 countries are using Ensembl to access the public data every week.

Ensembl also provides complete, open access to the underlying database that powers the website. As well as academic institutions, UK-based pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Oxford GlycoSciences are two organisations that have committed themselves to using this service to enhance their own discovery processes.

Dr Allen Roses, Senior Vice-President of Genetics Research said: "GlaxoSmithKline is using Ensembl in-house and is impressed by its data quality and technical approach. By building on an open resource we can both contribute back to basic science and leverage the human genome for our own drug discovery processes."

Oxford GlycoSciences have also committed themselves to using the Ensembl database. Andrew Lyall, head of Bioinformatics at Oxford GlycoSciences, said: "Ensembl provides us with high quality integrated genomic information and we have been able to combine this with our unique proteomics data. Using Ensembl to enhance our discovery process in this way went very smoothly and helped us improve our data mining. It has already resulted in some very promising discoveries."

The campaign to promote the public genome data is backed by Science Minister Lord Sainsbury: "The Human Genome Project is a major triumph for science. We are indebted to scientists from the UK and overseas who have been involved in the project.

"As a discovery, it is only right that the data is freely available for all, ensuring that all research communities can contribute to the potential benefits, such as new and better treatments for some of the world's most devastating diseases. As the Prime Minister said on publication of the draft human genome sequence, 'the knowledge contained in the map of the human genome has the power to touch the lives of everyone on the planet'.

"Databases such as those available at the Wellcome Trust-funded Ensembl site offer a powerful research tool to scientists, and will enable the UK to exploit the human genome and be a world-leader in post-genomics. We want to encourage academics and industry to maximise use of this data."

Sir Robert May, President of the Royal Society, said: " For this scientific endeavour to work effectively and bring widespread benefit as quickly as possible, it is vital that all researchers have access to the full genome without charge or other impediment. The human genome sequence itself must be freely available to all humankind. This is in the best interests of both science and industry, as well as being morally right."

For further information contact:

Shaun Griffin/Tony Samphier/Noorece Ahmed
Tel: 020 7611 7262
Fax: 020 7611 8416
Out-of-hours: 07693 366023 (pager)
Email: press.office@wellcome.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  1. The Wellcome Trust is an independent, research-funding charity, established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936. It is funded from a private endowment, which is managed with long-term stability and growth in mind. The Trust's mission is to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health. For more information, visit our website at www.wellcome.ac.uk/
  2. Images of the advert are available on request
  3. Additional quotes available
  4. The public data are available at:
  5. Other information on the Human Genome Project is available at:

Sanger Institute Contact Information:

Don Powell Press Officer
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Hinxton, Cambs, CB10 1SA, UK

Tel +44 (0)1223 496 928
Mobile +44 (0)7753 7753 97
Fax +44 (0)1223 494 919
Email press.office@sanger.ac.uk

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