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Responsible and open innovation with large bioresources

1 February 2016

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Reported by Matthew McGuire, ESRC-Funded CSaP Policy Intern (October 2015 - January 2016)

On 28 January, the Centre for Science and Policy in association with the Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences (LML) hosted a workshop at the University of Cambridge. The workshop brought together experts from the public and private sectors working on issues around genomics, synthetic biology, intellectual property (IP) law and policy.

The overall aim was to discuss how policies of ‘openness’ could contribute to the innovation and development of large DNA bioresources. This workshop followed on from an event held on 8 May 2015, entitled ‘Realising Genomic Medicine: Intellectual Property Issues’, a report can be downloaded here.

Synthetic biology and genomics share an important feature: substantial investment in large, often publicly funded, bioresources such as BioBricks and the 100,000 Genomes Project. Both fields therefore face a significant challenge — developing innovation policies for these new resources to ensure that they become accessible and appealing tools for transformative research, and go on to achieve real-world impact.

Therefore, important in this workshop was whether and to what extent policies of openness are appropriate for innovation with bioresources in synthetic biology and genomics.

Openness across sectors

In a field with multiple actors with varied aims, defining openness is a difficult task. The tensions between divergent systems were therefore a starting point for the discussion. A few key typologies were used: ‘open science’, ‘open source’ and ‘open innovation’.

Open science policies in academia emphasise low or no cost sharing of insights and resources, including funding and human capital. The open source approach to software involves IP licence agreements that ‘invert’ traditional IP rights by generally stipulating that the software must be available to edit, use and develop into new works, resulting in an extensive degree of openness.

Open innovation describes an organisation in favour of collaboration with external organisations, a different form of openness to open science and open source. Collaborations may involve money transfer, with IP used sometimes as a tool to set boundaries and signal interest. From the academic research sector, systems of open innovation seem quite closed.

Responsible and open innovation

Leaders in industry, biobank development and academia gave presentations with case studies from their work. The discussion focussed on how different models of openness were used in divergent sectors, and considered how a mixed system (with different degrees and versions of openness) could encourage innovation and collaboration.

Policies of openness stand to play an important role in the development of both synthetic biology and genomic medicine. However, because all sectors rely on insights and resources from external partners, it is important that any system offers benefits to all parties involved as a way to incentivise innovation and protect the public interest.

The impact of the Nagoya Protocol, which entered into force in 2014, was also discussed. The protocol is intended to foster greater transparency and ensure benefit-sharing for providers and users of genetic resources. The implementation of the protocol at a domestic level, as well as recent landmark US Supreme Court rulings on the genomics industry which prohibit the patent protection of natural DNA sequences, have contributed to uncertainty and created challenges across sectors.

This workshop facilitated an ongoing conversation between attendees from a variety of backgrounds and encouraged new connections, which may hold scope for future collaboration. A full event report will be published shortly.

Thumbnail image: An overview of the structure of DNA from Michael Ströck

Banner image from Phil Roeder via Flickr

Matthew McGuire

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)