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Biotech Companies Testing the Open Source Model

Written by on Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

In case you missed it, Matthew Herper and Robert Langreth wrote in a recent article about an interesting new trend in the biotech industry–applying the open source model to the biotech world.

Herper and Langreth reported as follows:

Novartis. . . the Basel, Switzerland, drug giant, has helped uncover which of the 20,000 genes identified by the Human Genome Project are likely to be associated with diabetes. But rather than hoard this information, as drug firms have traditionally done, it is making it available for free on the World Wide Web. . . .Researchers at Novartis partnered with Sweden’s Lund University and the Cambridge, Mass.-based Broad Institute, a joint venture between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard that is funded by billionaire Eli Broad. This international team compared the genomes of 1,500 people who had diabetes with 1,500 who were disease-free. All the patients were from Sweden. To do this quickly, the scientists used gene chips from biotech Affymetrix. . . that allowed them to track 500,000 places in the genetic code where past experience has shown that there are likely to be differences.

The result: a library of genetic differences that are likely to increase a patient’s risk of diabetes. Researchers don’t know what most of these errant genes do, or exactly why diabetics are more likely to have these genes. That is exactly the puzzle a world’s worth of scientists are needed to unravel. . . .

It is inevitable that the biotech world would begin to test the open source model, which has become so popular in the software industry, but it raises some interesting questions about how best to adapt the model from software to biotechnology.  What should such a license look like? Will the biotech community embrace such a model the same way that the software engineering world has?  Is biotech likely to run into the same problems with an open source model that the software world has?

It will be interesting to watch this new trend to see if it takes off, and if so, what it ends up meaning for the industry.




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