Role of Open-Access
Rai recalled the patent history of custom-engineered zinc finger proteins (ZFPs) capable of binding virtually any DNA sequence of interest. A single company, Sangamo, consolidated the majority of relevant patents generated from the research, raising questions of whether any company’s monopoly control over a research platform will ultimately help or hinder its optimal development. Rai with three co-authors explored these issues in a 2009 Nature Biotechnology article.
According to the article, academic scientists said they routinely used patented technologies owned by Sangamo without securing a license, under the apparent expectation that Sangamo will refrain from suing academics. Rai and co-authors discussed how the scientists they interviewed wanted to collaborate with Sangamo only to find the company would not disclose its proprietary technologies and was highly selective in its choice of collaborators.
Sangamo’s actions prompted ZFP researchers J. Keith Joung and Dan Voytas to create the Zinc Finger Consortium, with a commitment to develop resources, software, and other tools for engineering zinc fingers and for performing robust, user-friendly genome engineering that is publicly available to the academic scientific community.
Consortium members have developed Zinc Finger Targeter (ZiFiT), one of several web-based tools for identifying potential ZFP target sites in DNA sequences. Another openly available tool is Zinc Finger Tools, developed by Carlos Barbas’ research team at the Scripps Research Institute, allowing for DNA sequences to be searched for contiguous or separated target sites.
“Because of problems with patent disclosure, patents may effectively be posing a barrier to academic research in this field,” Rai and his co-authors concluded. “Second, resolving deficiencies in patent disclosure could mitigate the problem of academic access to physical materials and know-how, perhaps even obviating the need to develop open-science alternatives.”
Tuncak of CIEL said another challenge to open-innovation strategies and platforms was “the sluggish pace at which patent offices identify, react, and classify emerging technological fields.”
While the consortium and the BioBricks Foundation have made strides in keeping synthetic bio research open, Tuncak said, “the ever expanding patent-oriented practices of universities and small, medium, and large corporate research laboratories still make the challenges that result from inaccurate classification of patents a problem for researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors.”