Slowly but surely, biology and biotechnology efforts that follow open source principles are improving, and as they mature, they could have a profound effect on healthcare, longevity, disease control, and much more. Biotechnology reporter Luke Zimmerman’s latest dispatch on the work of Sage Bionetworks founder Stephen Friend offers a case in point. With gene sequencing efforts going on all around the world–but mostly going on in silos, where information is not shared in optimal ways–Friend is convinced that shared data could bring on huge advances in biotechnology. His is only one of several promising efforts in this area.
Friend was formerly a top executive at pharmaceutical company Merck, but quit his job and founded Sage Bionetworks. "Amazon Web Services, the cloud-computing unit of the e-commerce giant, is hosting the massive amounts of genomic data that Sage wants to put in its public repository," writes Zimmerman. He also notes that many large companies, including Merck and Pfizer are participating in Sage’s data collection efforts. Zimmerman writes:
"Friend has learned how many people still resist any change to business as usual. Academic institutions still cling to their intellectual property out of a hope it will someday make them money. Scientists, by and large, keep their experimental data close to the vest in the hope they can get career-making papers published in Science or Nature. Many drugmakers can’t really imagine sharing anything valuable outside their corporate firewalls, lest it undermine their competitive standing."
The goal of global sharing of genomic and other biotechnology-driven data is a lofty one, but is not unprecedented. Other biotechnology efforts have pursued open source principles before. Consider The BioBricks Foundation. Scientist Drew Endy is founder of BioBricks, and we covered his work here. BioBricks is a non-profit organization overseen by engineers and scientists from MIT, Harvard, and U.C. San Francisco, focused on open source biotechnology. Just as open source software is often shared in online repositories, the BioBricks Foundation has a registry online for open source biological parts.
Friend and Endy are just two examples of people from the world of biotechnology who see the model of sharing information via journals as outdated and archaic. Open, cloud-based efforts to share information globally have much promise.
You can find much more information on Friend’s work with Sage Bionetworks here–worth reading.
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