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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2001

Sick Kids Fires Top Genomics Scientist

A top University of Toronto scientist has been fired by the Hospital for Sick Children over a dispute about the future of the public domain GDB Human Genome Database.

Dr. Jamie Cuticchia, head of the hospital's bioinformatics supercomputer centre and professor of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto, was locked out of his hospital office on Oct. 19 and dismissed on Nov. 1.

"My office and personal effects were seized, hospital staff were given access to my personal and project papers, my email and my computer files. My assistant was unable to enter her office, had the keys to her desk confiscated and was escorted out of the building," Cuticchia said.

"The actions taken here set a precedent that an academic health science centre can seize the offices of its scientific staff without providing reasons to them, can take one's research program and hand it over to other researchers, and can seize both grants and the products of one's academic research without due process or explanation," he added.

The hospital alleges that Cuticchia and his colleagues illegally transferred the GDB's Internet domain name to a Maryland-based non-profit company. Cuticchia argues that the transfer was part of a legitimate effort to raise funds to keep the world's only large public domain database alive.

"This is a matter of grave concern," said CAUT president Tom Booth. "CAUT will be investigating the matter and will see that Cuticchia's academic rights are protected."

The University of Toronto has maintained Cuticchia's appointment.

The GDB was created in 1990 as an international compendium of data on human genome research. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and a number of other funding sources. It was formed as a public database to provide data free of charge to academic researchers without copyright restrictions. Private companies have also used GDB as an important source of data.

Cuticchia began working on the database at Johns Hopkins University in 1992. When the U.S. Department of Energy cut funding for GDB, Cuticchia obtained funding from IBM, Oracle, and an anonymous donor to continue his research in GDB at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children in 1998.

Since then Cuticchia has raised $50 million in grants and contributions while at HSC. His grants funded the purchase of Canada's largest supercomputer, which was made available free of charge for Ontario researchers through the Ontario Centre for Genomic Computing, a project directed by Dr. Gregg Silk, who was dismissed along with Cuticchia.

According to Cuticchia, "GDB requires funding and staff to create a new version of the outdated software while guaranteeing continued free access to academic researchers."

The goal was to raise money for GDB to ensure free academic access over the Internet, while providing copies of the database for companies with commercial licenses. This revenue model has also been accepted by many other biological databases.

"All software developed in this arrangement would be placed in the public domain, and all data freely available for scientific use," Cuticchia said. "The only condition of funding would be that GDB data could be packaged with proprietary data from the funding body and made available to commercial organizations for a fee. In this process, no intellectual property of GDB would be transferred to funding corporations. Rather, the IP created under the funding would be transferred to the GDB and the public domain."