Saturday, 5 June 2010

Will the Synthetic Genome Breakthrough Be Any Good? - Reasons for Doubt

Just a short while after private genetic research entrepreneur Craig Venter announced the successful creation of a functioning synthetic genome, and thus opening the door to the feasibility of creating life-forms functionally governed by DNA never before present in nature, debate is heating up over what the consequences will be of this scientific breakthrough. On May 25, John Sulston – genetics professor at the University of Manchester – went public at a speech to the Royal Society in London with worries about Venter's and associates' ambitions to screen off public access to the new technology through patents and other legal commercial protection mechanisms. The comment from the Venter side so far is merely that they are not alone in doing their best to squeeze some dough out of this branch of science. However, this can hardly be seen as a valid defense if Sulston's main point is correct; rather, it would just make things worse.

In my initial comment on Venter's and colleagues' breakthrough, I devoted some space to demonstrate that the sort of utility applications boasted about  by Venter and some of the initial commentators (e.g. pollution eating or biofuel-producing bacteria) are in fact very, very far from what is achievable today or even in the foreseeable future. Even more so if we add the sensible conditions that such applications need to be introduced in an ethically responsible way. However, as I emphasised, this reason for playing down the expectations leaves one area of application that is of particular importance: that of using Venter's new technology (or some of the procedures involved) as a tool in basic science. However, if Sulston is right, also this prospect of the new discovery to have a practical impact fades in front of the eyes of a careful investigator.

In his speech, Sulston reminded about the fights around the Human Genome Project, where Venter's commercially funded side-show initially wanted to have the basic genetic blueprint of humanity as much as possible hidden behind the shields of commercial secrecy and application protection. As it turned out, the side (to which Sulston belonged) that advocated the submission of all acquired information to the public domain won that battle. Had they not, chances are that the genomics research that is now gradually producing actual knowledge and applications of use to people suffering from disease or impairment, would have been stalled considerably. For instance, we would presumably have seen much more of the sort of tricks that some US genetics companies have tried to pull on the basis of a temporary situation in the application of US patent legislation, that is now hopefully being disbanded thanks to a recent legal ruling. That is, the holders of patents and other legal commercial protection mechanisms would have demanded of researchers working for the public good that they pay for the mere use of the knowledge about the basic structure of the human genome and the connected technological processes.

Such prospects are bad news for science, since science works best when tools and information are shared as freely as can be. Patents and other commercial legal protection mechanisms become desirable only when science is ready and done, and the stage of developing actual commercial products is entered. One should not let oneself be fooled by the fact that in this particular case, a commercial research institution succeeded, since it did so by acting within the public domain context of science, thus profiting from the publicised results of all other researchers that have been working in synthetic biology according to these basic scientific principles. The move towards patents by Venter & Co. is, in this light, a disturbing case of parasitical piggybacking, where the Venter research team effectively says to the scientific community: we played you for suckers! now that, thanks to all our combined efforts, we have reaped our harvest, we'll not only bake our own bread, but we'll refuse you to use our recipe - unless, of course, you pay up.

Now, Venter himself may of course claim that he has nothing like that in mind. But how much say in such matters will Venter have in the end? Being an entrepreneur, Venter is caught in the claws of his financial backers, and his scientific empire is in all practical respects run no different from any commercial company. There are shareholders who expect a swift return on their investment, there are company boards and managements who have to comply with the standard legal requirements of setting the economic interests of the company and the shareholders before anything else. In that light, Sulston's worries are highly realistic; what initially looked as a fantastic scientific breakthrough is highly likely to turn into a serious inhibitor of basic scientific research in synthetic as well as general biology.