CAMBIA and OSDD: Spreading Open Source Biotechnology

Biotechnology development faces many of the same intellectual property issues as computer science. However, biotechnology research organizations in the developing world often lack the resources to chase down and license the many patents required to create new therapies. This leads to blockages in the development of innovative health solutions, particularly for neglected tropical diseases which may have relatively small market potential in the short term.

Two groups that have taken on the patent challenge are CAMBIA of Australia (www.cambia.org), and India's Open Source Drug Discovery initiative (www.osdd.net). Based on case studies combining original data, interviews, and analysis, this paper explains how these two organizations are tackling complementary health innovation challenges using open collaboration and principles derived from the open source world, and analyzes general principles illustrated by the case studies that apply to open development in health technology for the developing world.

This paper makes two proposals. Firstly, we suggest that open source principles manifest themselves differently in biotechnology than in software development. The culture of research is different from the culture of software development, and methodologies (such as lab protocols) seem to be qualitatively different. In addition, while software engineers share more or less equal access to the tools of the trade, many diagnostic and research technologies are expensive and difficult to obtain for biotechnology researchers.

Secondly, we propose that while open source biotechnology is still inventing its own methodology, examples like CAMBIA and OSDD indicate that rapid growth is to be expected once the methodology is fully defined. The rapid and more-or-less simultaneous appearance of new open-source biotechnology initiatives, such as The Synaptic Leap, the Tropical Disease Initiative, the Health Commons, and DIYBio also suggest long-term growth for this area of open source.

We begin by defining open source in the context of biotechnological research. Patent protection is a key area, often pertaining to research and diagnostic tools. Next we examine what motivated CAMBIA and OSDD to pursue open source biotechnology, and find that the perception of overly-stringent patents and intellectual property as an artificial barrier to development is widespread. In particular, it is often perceived as a brake on progress in developing economies.

CAMBIA and OSDD have pursued a variety of approaches to facilitating open research and development of methodologies, diagnostics and treatments. The canonical example for CAMBIA is the GUS reporter system developed by CAMBIA's founder, Richard Jefferson. Rather than patenting it, Jefferson released GUS into the public domain. Since doing so, his GUS staining technique has become possibly the most widely used tool in plant molecular biology with over 6000 citations in the literature.

We describe this and newer initiatives by CAMBIA and OSDD, note their relative success or failure, and from this propose some hypotheses about how open source biotechnology differs from open source software development. We conclude by noting the potential for the open approach, particularly in the realm of pharmaceutical development in the developing world, and repeat the claim that there are many signals of growth in this area.

Author: Hassan Masum

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