Chemical Society: NIH Database Hurts Business

A National Institutes of Health database on chemicals is free to the public. This has created some anxiety for the American Chemical Society, which is in the business of charging customers for similar information.

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There's some bad chemistry between the American Chemical Society and the federal government. The society is one of the largest scientific associations in the country. It funds itself in part by selling access to a gigantic database of chemicals. But the government has started its own such database, and it's free. The society says this could put them out of business. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

If you're a chemist and want to look up, say, the structure of caffeine or some obscure molecule, you might go to the Chemical Society's computerized database. It costs money to use, but it's huge. Madeleine Jacobs is the society's CEO. She says it's the largest chemical database in the world, 25 million molecules.

Ms. MADELEINE JACOBS (CEO, American Chemical Society): This is a registry of molecules that the American Chemical Society's scientists put together over a period of 40 years, investing about $500 million in this, searching the literature for molecules, patent literature for molecules.

KESTENBAUM: Users can also get links to patents and research papers. But it turns out that a lot of scientists use the database for pretty routine stuff, to look up the basic structure of something they're working on. And she says that simple use, just using the database like a dictionary, makes the society a lot of money. She won't say exactly how much.

Ms. JACOBS: It's tens of millions of dollars. How's that?

KESTENBAUM: Jacobs is worried they could lose that income because the federal government, the National Institutes of Health, has now put together a chemical database called PubChem. PubChem contains fewer than a million chemicals but it's growing, it's free for anyone to use through the Internet, and it has the same basic information about chemicals.

Ms. JACOBS: I am actually looking at a side-by-side comparison of a PubChem record and a registry record for the same compound. And if you asked a very intelligent seven-year-old, `Do these things look alike to you and do they have the same information?' they would say yes.

KESTENBAUM: Jacobs says PubChem is unfair competition and a really bad use of taxpayer dollars because it duplicates something that already exists. The government says its database is aimed at biologists, but Jacobs suspects it has larger ambitions. She says most of the molecules in there aren't actually useful to biologists.

Ms. JACOBS: They have, for example, an explosive in there, HDX. That's a good one. They have a whole database of materials that no one in their worst nightmare would think have anything to do with curing cancer.

KESTENBAUM: Defenders of the government's database, PubChem, have a very different view. They say they are trying to help biologists by linking molecules to information about their biological effects. Steve Bryant heads the project. I asked him if he would look up the explosive that Madeleine Jacobs mentioned.

Mr. STEVE BRYANT (Project Head): Yeah, sure. Just go back to the main home page and...

KESTENBAUM: He finds one study of its health effects on soldiers; another looks at its ability to kill tumors in mice.

Mr. BRYANT: There are two of these mouse tumor model tests.

KESTENBAUM: So people did really test this to see if it might be helpful in treating cancer?

Mr. BRYANT: Yeah. In fact, that's where the structure of the compound came from, from the National Cancer Institute.

KESTENBAUM: Bryant says no one is trying to bankrupt the American Chemical Society. Virtually all of the database's chemical information was already available on the Web from universities and government and research institutes. He says PubChem just pulls it together. And others say it's silly for the government to fund research and not put it in an easy-to-use database. Francis Collins directs human genome research at the NIH.

Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS (National Institutes of Health): The government is supposed to support scientific research that's going to benefit the public. I think that's the strongest mandate we have. If, in this circumstance, the government establishing a new database which is going to catalyze a major leap forward in science is causing some anxiety on the part of a single private-sector supplier of information, then we would like to work closely with them to minimize that impact. But that argument cannot trump the importance of moving science forward.

KESTENBAUM: The American Chemical Society says it also has science's best interests in mind, and it has taken its case to Capitol Hill, trying to get language added into a spending bill that would rein in the government's database, PubChem. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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