Publishers make appeal to lawmakers in NIH dispute

American Chemical Society officials are asking lawmakers to rein in those responsible for a federal database of molecular structures because they say it will cut into the society's income from the sale of similar information.

The National Institutes of Health created PubChem in 2004 as part of NIH's Roadmap for Medical Research initiative to speed the discovery of new medical treatments. PubChem has a list of names and structures of 850,000 chemicals.

ACS officials fear that PubChem will duplicate the society's Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS). NIH and ACS officials have exchanged letters, meetings and phone calls since 2004. Now because of an impasse in those discussions, ACS officials are urging lawmakers to put restrictions on NIH's development of PubChem.

"ACS believes strongly that the federal government should not seek to become a taxpayer-supported, competitive scientific publisher," ACS said in a statement last month. "By collecting, organizing and disseminating small-molecule information, whose creation it has not funded and which duplicates CAS services, NIH has started, rather ominously, down the path to unfettered scientific publishing."

Brian Dougherty, senior adviser to the chief strategy officer at ACS, said the society suggested forming a technical working group to set parameters for PubChem. "NIH has been unwilling to put anything in writing," Dougherty said. "We think this is going to put us out of business if it keeps growing and no parameters are set."

NIH officials said they are confused about why ACS insists that PubChem will harm the society's business interests. "What is in common is a relatively small number of compound structures and names," said Christopher Austin, senior adviser to the translational research director at the NIH Chemical Genomics Center at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

"ACS has gotten hung up on this," he said. "CAS has 25 million structures. PubChem has about 850,000. PubChem is a subset. Not everything that is in CAS is relevant to biomedical research."

NIH officials said narrowing PubChem's focus could slow medical progress. "It would have profoundly negative effects on this new paradigm of making medical discoveries," Austin said.

Larry Thompson, chief of the communications and public liaison branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, said biomedical researchers could discover biological relevance in any small molecule. "That's why it's called research," he said. "No one knows what molecule will be the next blockbuster drug."

Thompson said NIH officials have no desire to undercut CAS, and they are willing to work with the society to ensure the viability of both information services.

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