Recorded: 02 Jun 2003
Okay, well I’ll tell you about companies. And this was one of my greatest disappointments in the genome project. Craig Venter asked me to start Celera with him. And I told him I wouldn’t do it because that I thought that the human genome sequence wouldn’t be public. And he said then come with me to a Perkin-Elmer board meeting and I’ll convince you that it will be public. So this was before Celera was ever formed and we had this meeting in Florida. This is public knowledge now so I can say this. And actually I saw it published by somebody else who never got it from me so I might as well tell it to you. And at this board meeting it was in fact true almost all the board members around the table agreed. Mike Hunkapillar, Tony White all of the leaders said that the initial plan and the plan was to have the Celera sequence be public. And a specific statement from one of the board members whose name I don’t know was from Chicago though I know, and so he said very memorably, he said, “Now, let me get this straight. So we can make people pay to go to church, but we can’t sell the bible.” And we said, yep, that’s right. But then someone said, well what’s the business model going to be in this? How are we going to make money? And Mike Hunkapillar said, “we’ll sell lots of machines, don’t worry” But even at that stage I had decided and I had told Craig, Look you know company stuff isn’t for me. I just—you know, I’m just going to keep doing what I do at Stanford. So I knew about Celera and I knew what they were going to do before Craig announced this to anybody else.
So it was just before Celera was announced. So at that time I told Craig it was that if he did this there was still a way that could really interact with public effort. And I said the same thing to Francis. So there was some efforts. There was plenty of room for both the public and the private effort to work together. And there were meetings with Harold Varmus, and Craig and Francis to try and work this through. But the problem was that everybody was a human being and the personal feelings were so strong that despite some efforts to work together it led to this gigantic public/private schism. That’s my greatest disappointment because I knew I was there. It did not have to be that way. And why was it that way? I think it’s not any single person’s fault. But its because human beings did the human genome project. And then the public was much more interested in building more of the division than building more of the coming together. So that what was the net effect of all of this? If it hadn’t been for Craig doing this we would not have the sequence finished like we do today, period. And the mean spiritedness between people on both sides I think is the lowest point of the human genome project. True mean spiritedness. I think that fortunately that’s pretty much over now.
So, let me just say [that] big projects, the more people and the resources you have, the slower they go. Furthermore, the harder it is to have any kind of creativity. So what was the basis? Why did Craig want to go and do Celera? So, remember I talked about how early on it was a different group of people, the mappers and then you brought in the sequencers. But what happened is the project got bigger and you started going further along. You had fewer and fewer players. And more and more— a few individuals who controlled all of the resources and all of the ideas. Now this is the way it had to be in order to have the project go along. But what happened is you got a fair way down the line. If somebody else had came up with a new strategic approach that it was no longer possible to integrate that strategic approach in, even if it was good, because people believed that you couldn’t turn the Queen Mary around anymore. And we couldn’t afford to integrate anything new.
This was the problem with Craig’s idea of the whole shotgun sequencing. And that it wasn’t considered in any true scientific way at all. It was dismissed out of hand in a very non-scientific way, in a political way. But the reason was, I believe, not because people didn’t like Craig, but because people genuinely believed that it would throw the timeline and the possibility of getting the sequencing done off track.
Well, this really pissed a lot of people off. Not just Craig! Because if you are a scientist and you have a better way of doing things, you don’t want people for political reasons telling you not to do it. In fairness some people thought that there were scientific reasons why this wouldn’t work. But Craig went out and did it in the private sector because he was pissed off and he wanted to show people that he was intellectually right. So that this was again a down side of the human genome project when it went further along because it didn’t allow the incorporation of ideas from a bunch of other people other than the small group of individuals, the cabal of people that was really in charge of finishing it. So I think this was something very counter to the way that a lot of science is done. And scientists had a hard time dealing with it.
So at the end of the day though that’s really what these private sector things did is that they forced the big project to take into account new approaches because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have gotten the credit. So that was it important it was done at 2003, I don’t think that that date is so important. But I think that the heavy lifting on this isn’t getting the sequence of the genome, it’s using the sequence. And that you don’t want to wait another ten years to get the sequence of the genome. So I think it’s very important to get done early.
David Cox received B.A. and M.S. degrees from Brown University and M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Washington. From 1980 to 1993, Dr. Cox held faculty positions in the Departments of Pediatrics, Biochemistry and Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. In 1993, he became Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as the Co-director of the Stanford Genome Center.
Dr Cox was a co-founder of Perlegen, and has been Chief Scientific Officer of the Company since its formation in 2001. He has served on several international and national councils and commissions including the Council of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC). He presently serves as a member of the Health Sciences Policy Board of the Institute of Medicine. Dr Cox's honors include election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cox was a member of one of the first groups to begin sequencing the human genome. His relationship with Watson developed from his interest in Cox’s innovative approach to sequencing, called radiation hybrid mapping.
He attended the 68th Cold Spring Harbor symposium to celebrate the completion of the rough draft of the human sequence.