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Biology Goes Open Source 100

cford writes "According to Forbes some of the drug company giants are finally realizing that their genetic research is worth more if they give it away. '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. "It will take the entire world to interpret these data," says Novartis research head Mark Fishman. "We figure we will benefit more by having a lot of companies look at these data than by holding it secret."'"
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Biology Goes Open Source

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  • by SpaceLifeForm ( 228190 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:10PM (#17987318)
    It just seems unlikely that the darkside won't
    come up with some 'problem' to squash this
    wonderful idea.
  • by shawn443 ( 882648 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:16PM (#17987378) Homepage

    But another requirement of making the leap from genes to drugs is making the research public--a step that will make it difficult for researchers elsewhere to patent any of this raw genetic information.
    The only thing I hate worse than software patents are genetic patents. If any industries could use a Stallman it would be biotech and genetic.
  • by cashman73 ( 855518 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:21PM (#17987444) Journal
    It's not like Novartis has made their entire drug database public with all of their notes regarding which drugs they're interested in pursuing or not,... They've done some significant analysis into the diabetes gene, and rather than withholding it, they're making it public. There's no real compelling reason to protect this aspect of the research, so why not? The benefits of releasing it outweigh the negatives:

    • They still get to do their own research and develop their own drugs to target specific genes in this area.
    • They get huge kudos in the PR arena for their attempts at finding a cure for cancer diabetes. They can use this in advertising campaigns.
    • As researchers in other pharmaceutical companies and/or academia use this information, they'll eventually write grants and use it in their research. Novartis will still get the advantage from them citing the source,... Again, see the above advertising part,...
  • Yeah, but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by guruevi ( 827432 ) <evi AT evcircuits DOT com> on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:27PM (#17987530) Homepage
    closed source is so much more secure... what we need is developers, developers, developers, yeah, whoo

    Seriously, I think all findings on the human genome project should be open. It took a huge effort and even persons at home let spare cycles run on this project. Our bodies, and what's inside should be open since it's not something 'they' invented, manufactured or engineered. Whatever drugs they're developing could be closed, but generics should definitely be allowed too.
  • Re:Yeah, but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SportyGeek ( 694769 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:34PM (#17987618)
    Mod parent up. I also believe that many of these pharmaceutical companies should make their sequencing data of other organisms (read: pathogens) available to the public. This will make the drug discovery process much faster when more minds are thrown into the mix. Keeping data like this behind closed doors may be a good business model, but it certainly does not help the state of affairs in infectious diseases.
  • Remember this: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ubi_NL ( 313657 ) <joris@id[ ] ['eee' in gap]> on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:36PM (#17987640) Journal
    As a research scientist this move doesn't sound too strange.
    However keep in mind that they are not providing the world with their raw data.
    Rest assured that the milked it for anything that could give a profit, stripped that off and released the rest.
    This is how it happens with large scale datasets all the time.

  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @04:59PM (#17987986) Journal
    While I applaud the company, the notion that the human genome or any part of it is anyone's to keep, license or give away is appalling.
  • by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @05:03PM (#17988060) Journal
    I have no problem with companies patenting novel genes (in other words genes that they have invented or have altered to perform a novel or improved function). But patenting genes that their sole effort (however small or big that might be) was to simply observe in catalog is no different than a zoologist patenting any new species he finds or an astronomer patenting the galaxies he sees in a telescope.

    It's very obvious that patents have spun completely out of control, and that the public has bought hook, line and sinker into it when we're all lauding some corporate interest for giving away what never was theirs to begin with.
  • Hurray! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by blueZhift ( 652272 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @05:25PM (#17988338) Homepage Journal
    This sounds like pretty good news. While I see nothing wrong with corporations wanting to make a profit, there are, I think, serious ethical problems with withholding information that could save many lives. And in particular, I think that the information in the human genome is something that belongs to all of humankind. Working together, not only will lives be saved and enhanced, but some serious money will be made as well, sooner rather than later.
  • by Baba Ram Dass ( 1033456 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @05:27PM (#17988374)
    Yep, this is what drives the free market: people acting in their own self-interest. Novartis probably doesn't expect or intend to benefit others with this move (it's PR like you said), but undoubtedly their self-interest will end up benefiting others.
  • by Puff Daddy ( 678869 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @05:41PM (#17988592)
    The study of biology was already open source. There is a wealth of data at the NCBI [] and other sources. We are seeing a renaissance in molecular biology right now and I, for one, attribute it to the hard work of thousands of researchers freely sharing their work. It's not just the data either, it's [] journals [] and software [], too. We have more information than we know how to handle, and it's being created much faster than it will ever be understood. It's gotten to a point where new fields of study are being created just to interpret the collected data and try to make some sense of it. Bioinformatics and computational biology are truly amazing fields, the only trouble is attempting to explain just what it is you do to friends and relatives. Trust me, it's not always easy.
  • by DoctorPhil ( 875161 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @06:07PM (#17988964)
    By your reasoning, nickv111, everybody would get everything cheaper if patent terms were shorter, or eliminated. And copyrights - they're a lot like patents. We should eliminate them, too. Then everybody could get everything for free!

    Just like Soviet Russia. You can have everything in an empty shop for free.

    The real cause of high prices in medications is the FDA approval process. It costs, on AVERAGE, about a BILLION dollars to get a drug approved in the US. A patent lasts 20 years, and it takes at least 10 years to get a drug approved. This means the pharma company has 10 years to recover their $1 billion investment.

    Only, $1 billion invested over a period of 10 years is not the same as $1 billion at the time they start selling the drug, let alone $1 billion at tne END of that 10-year window! In order to have high enough profits to maintain their stock value, their investments have to appreciate at roughly 20% per year. If you spend $1 billion over 10 years, at the end of those 10 years, that $1 billion now is worth $3.01 billion. That doesn't mean that you have 10 years to make back $3 billion - that investment's sunk cost keeps increasing, to $9 billion by the end of those 10 years!

    So, in fact, the pharama company has to make $900,000,000 in PROFIT, each year for 10 years, just to make up for the cost of getting FDA approval. That's apart from the cost of inventing the drug, manufacturing it, advertising it, and distributing it.

  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @06:37PM (#17989342)
    large corporations seem to have to have problems 'institutionalising innovation', and thus end up like Cisco, Microsoft & others - spending fortunes on R&D, but then spending even more on buying ideas in from start-ups or Academe.

          As a physician I am often shocked to think about how much pharmaceutical companies charge for medications. Especially considering that my practice is in the "third world", price is the absolute foremost concern for all my patients when it comes to prescribing a medication. They will often insist on an inferior generic product instead of paying three or four times as much for a newer, better drug. I understand that research is expensive.

          I also know that a lot of money is spent "visiting" doctors trying to convince us that their product is the "best", organizing "conferences" for us (which are nothing more than sales pitches) with free dinner included, etc. Not to mention all the free pens, calculators, calendars and other promotional materials. Some of my colleagues virtually thrive on this stuff. I for one would rather see cheaper medication. Less price, higher volume is what I think they should be looking at. And if they can't make profit on volume, then they should stop trying to push that product as if it was the new Holy Grail - only the very rich will buy it - period.

          A case in point - the vaccine for HPV (cervical cancer's principle cause). It costs over $300 PER DOSE and you need 3 doses. Whoa, that's $1000. With the average monthly salary at around $350 a month here, how many of those do they expect to sell? Even in the US a lot of people would stop and think about this. And how many do they expect me to keep on hand in my fridge at that price, taking into account expiration dates, breakages, etc? Great concept. Completely useless at that price.

          Anyway, my $.02 worth. They shouldn't complain about being unprofitable - they've priced themselves out of the market. People will always get sick. They just can't afford to pay for the medication anymore.
  • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @07:01PM (#17989640)
    So, in fact, the pharama company has to make $900,000,000 in PROFIT, each year for 10 years, just to make up for the cost of getting FDA approval.

          You know, drug companies don't suddenly stop making profit once the patent expires and competition begins. Look at how many companies sell plain old acetyl-salicilate (aka aspirin). They're obviously making money. So that's the first hole in your argument right there.

          Secondly, drug companies seem to forget that not everyone has a US income level. The price of medication is the same or more expensive outside the US than inside. This is to prevent people from "smuggling" meds into the US that were bought cheaper elsewhere. God forbid! So instead of getting into a 20 times bigger WORLD market, they decide to produce less, at a higher price. North americans can afford it - barely. And only the upper class everywhere else. And the rest, well, they just die younger. Who cares, right?

          Oh and as a doctor I've been invited to many, MANY dinners - at 5 star hotels, by pharmaceutical companies. I've had friends who have been flown to exotic locations for conferences on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. They want to give me lots of promotional things, from notepads to calculators and clocks, trying to recruit me as a salesman - they think my prescription pad is for hire. This costs money too.

          If only they understood that although I might read about the new wonderdrug in medical journals, what I usually prescribe is the cheapest medication around. It's what my patients want. I always give them a choice - the latest thing is X, the cheapest is Y. Invariably they choose Y.

          Big pharma should get that in their heads. The old products that they are still selling, even without patents, is what should fund the research. Someone who has taken lipitor for the past 10 years and is happy with it is probably not going to change in the NEXT 10 years.

          They should not gouge people on a new med because a) they can, due to a monopoly situation and b) try to justify this gouging because of "the cost of research".

          But then again, pharmacology has always been about commerce and making money. Healing the patient is incidental.
  • by Ignis Flatus ( 689403 ) on Monday February 12, 2007 @07:38PM (#17990102)
    If I invent something, but keep the details of my invention a secret, then that is certainly not free and not Open Source. But if I patent my invention, the use of the idea is still not free, but the knowledge practically is. Are patents Open Source?

    The reason I'm asking this is I wasn't sure from the article if the company was actually giving anything away. It is not clear to me if I invent a new drug based off the information they provided, do I now owe them a royalty?

    Open Source by patent (or copyright) is a great idea if you think you can make more money off licenses to others than by your own efforts. Secrecy is better if you think that your information is based on special insight and others will not be able to duplicate it independently for several decades. What they gave away (assuming they gave anything away) may not have much intrinsic value if it is easily duplicated by others.

The IQ of the group is the lowest IQ of a member of the group divided by the number of people in the group.