Patent protection provides an inventor/discoverer with an exclusive right to prevent or stop others from commercially exploiting the patented invention for a set period of time.
Patents are supposed to encourage innovation by providing the patent holder with an unchallenged opportunity to develop and profit from an idea. But it could be argued that patents are increasingly generating more problems than they are solving. In addition, they have led to the hording of data, which reduces collaboration and further limits progress.
Luckily there are some ambitious efforts trying to change this.
In today’s post, we will discuss some examples of these efforts.
Patents are a form of intellectual property that provide the holder with the legal right to block others from manufacturing or selling an invention during a limited period of time. In exchange, the patent holder will publicly disclose the invention.
The use of patents began on the 19th March, 1474 when the the Venetian Patent Statute was established in the Republic of Venice.
The republic of Venice (in red) across the Mediterranean. Source: Alchetron
The Venetian Patent Statute provided that patents may be granted for “any new and ingenious device, not previously made“, IF that invention was considered useful.
More recently, some folks in the research and legal worlds have started arguing that patents themselves are no longer “useful”.
Patents are suppose to encourage innovation, but in the US alone, the costs brought on by patent trolls (these are holding companies that acquire strategic patents and use legal threats to extract steep royalties) now amounts to 12% of business R&D spending (Source). It is literally blocking innovation rather than stimulating it – if there is no certainty of a profit to cover the cost of royalties, there will be no innovation.
Many biotech firms will stop working on novel potential therapies (and even block others from working on them) because there is not a long enough period of time left in the patent to make a “business case” for supporting it.
As we have discussed in a previous post here on the SoPD, 30% of all Phase II clinical trials do not continue on to Phase III not because the therapy fails in terms of efficacy or safety, but rather the companies behind the agent can not find a business model that will justify continuing.
Today’s post is a rant about the research publishing industry – explaining the hole they have dug for themselves and us (via profiteering and a lack of innovation), discussing how the research community supports the system, and exploring efforts to solve the problem.
You will be forgiven if you don’t read on, but understand that this subject is important.
In 1998, Mr Eisner quit a high-flying career in Hollywood deal-making and walked into a forgotten corner of Los Angeles education system.
In the Lennox School District – with the support of the Richstone Family Center – he sat down with a group of 7th graders with the simple goal: identifying underserved academically promising students. Once identified, Mr Eisner would equip them with resources and support to facilitate their success through high school, college, and beyond.
In 2010, a not-for-profit program had grown out of his efforts and it became known as the Young Eisner Scholars (or simply “YES”).
This is a constant source of frustration for yours truly.
At present, large publishing houses control the dissemination of most of the research being generated around the world by keeping it behind pay-to-view paywalls (they also charge researchers an “administration fee” to publish in their journal and insist that they sign over the copyright of the publication to the publisher).
Charging a fee on what should be public information is the worse kind of capitalism: It is rent seeking.
And this week one of the big academic publishing companies made an announcement that made me shake my head.
Yesterday the Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) initiative published a point of view in the scientific journal eLife. It laid out the objectives, themes and philosophy of an enormous new scientific effort to better understand Parkinson’s.
The overall project is being led by a Nobel prize winner scientist and employing the considerable resources of a very wealthy family that has been affected by Parkinson’s.
In today’s post we will have a look at what the ASAP initiative is planning to do and how it will hopefully significantly enhance our understanding of Parkinson’s.
The event was organised by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his family foundation. The Brin family have been affected by Parkinson’s (Sergey’s mother and aunt both have the condition, and Sergey has a genetic risk factor that increases his risk of developing Parkinson’s).
The Brin Family – Sergey and his mother on the right. Source: CS
Sergey and his mother both carry a genetic variation in a region of DNA called PARK8. It is also known as Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or simply LRRK2 – pronounced ‘lark 2’). The variant increases the risk of developing an young-onset, slow progressing form of Parkinson’s (Click here to read more about LRRK2). Sergey may never develop the condition, but he has decided not to take any chances. He has taken out an “insurance policy” by investing hundreds of millions of dollars into Parkinson’s research.
Part of that insurance policy is the ASAP effort.
And ASAP is being coordinated by Prof Randy Schekman.
For the vast majority of the general population, science is consumed via mass media head lines and carefully edited summaries of the research.
The result of this simplified end product is an ignorance of the process that researchers need to deal with in order to get their research in the public domain.
As part of our efforts to educate the general public about the scientific research of Parkinson’s disease, it is necessary to also make them aware of that process, the issues associated with it, and how it is changing over time.
In todays post, we will look at how new research reports are being made available to the public domain before they are published.
Getting research into the public domain. Source: STAT
Every morning here at the SoPD, we look at what new research has entered the public domain over night and try to highlight some of the Parkinson’s disease relevant bits on our Twitter account (@ScienceofPD).
To the frustration of many of our followers, however, much of that research sits behind the pay-to-view walls of big publishing houses. One is allowed to read the abstract of the research report in most cases, but not the full report.
Given that charity money and tax payer dollars are paying for much of the research being conducted, and for the publication fee (approx. $1500 per report on average) to get the report into the journal, there is little debate as to the lack of public good in such a system. To make matter worse, many of the scientists doing the research can not access the published research reports, because their universities and research institutes can not afford the hefty access fees for all of the journals.
To be fair, the large publishing houses have recognised that this is not a sustainable business model, and they have put forward the development of open-access web-based science journals, such as Nature communications, Scientific reports, and Cell reports. But the fees for publishing in these journals can in some cases be higher than the closed access publications.
This is crazy. What can we do about it?
Well, there have been efforts for some time to improve the situation.
Projects like the Public Library of Science (or PLOS) have been very popular and are now becoming a real force on the scientific publishing landscape (they recently celebrated their 10 year anniversary and during that time they have published more than 165,000 research articles). But they too have costs associated with maintaining their service and publications fees can still be significant.
Is there an easier way of making this research available?
Looks like the mad scientist type right? Don’t be fooled. He’s awesome! Prof Ginsparg is a professor of Physics and Computing & Information Science at Cornell University.
Back in 1991, he started a repository of pre-print publications in the field of physics. The repository was named arXiv.org, and it allowed physics researchers to share and comment on each others research reports before they were actually published.
The site slowly became an overnight sensation.
The number of manuscripts deposited at arXiv passed the half-million mark on October 3, 2008, the million manuscript mark by the end of 2014 (with a submission rate of more than 8,000 manuscripts per month). The site currently has 1,257,315 manuscripts that are freely available to access. A future nobel prize winning bit of research is probably in there!
Now, by their very nature, and in a very general sense, biomedical researchers are a jealous bunch.
For many years they looked on with envy at the hive of activity going on at arXiv and wished that they had something like it themselves. And now they do! In November 2013, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York launched BioRxiv.
And the website is very quickly becoming a popular destination: by April 21, 2017, >10,000 manuscript had been posted, at a current rate of over 800 manuscripts per month (Source).
Recently they got a huge nod of financial support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – a foundation set up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy” (Wikipedia).
bioRxiv is a free OPEN ACCESS service that allows researchers to submit draft copies of scientific papers — called preprints — for their colleagues to read and comment on before they are actually published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Here are two videos explaining the idea:
Sounds great right?
To demonstrate how the bioRxiv process works, we have selected an interesting manuscript from the database that we would like to review here on the SoPD.
This is the article:
Title: In Vivo Phenotyping Of Parkinson-Specific Stem Cells Reveals Increased a-Synuclein Levels But No Spreading Authors: Hemmer K, Smits LM, Bolognin S, Schwamborn JC Database: BioRxiv DOI:https://doi.org/10.1101/140178 PMID: N/A (You can access the manuscript by clicking here)
In this study (which was posted on bioRxiv on the 19th May, 2017), the researchers have acquired skin cells from an 81 year old female with Parkinson’s disease who carries a mutation (G2019S) in the LRRK2 gene.
Mutations in the Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (or Lrrk2) gene are associated with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The most common mutation of LRRK2 gene is G2019S, which is present in 5–6% of all familial cases of Parkinson’s disease, and is also present in 1–2% of all sporadic cases. We have previously discussed Lrrk2 (Click here to read that post).
The structure of Lrrk2 and where various mutations lie. Source:Intech
The skin cells were transformed using a bit of biological magic in induced pluripotent stem (or IPS) cells. We have previously discussed IPS cells and how they are created (Click here to read that post). By changing a subjects skin cell into a stem cell, researchers can grow the cell into any type of cell and then investigate a particular disease on a very individualised basis (the future of personalised medicine don’t you know).
IPS cell options available to Parkinson’s disease. Source: Nature
Using this IPS cell with a mutation in the LRRK2 gene, the researchers behind todays manuscript next grew the cells in culture and encouraged the cells to become dopamine producing cells (these are some of the most vulnerable cells in Parkinson’s disease). The investigators had previously shown that neurons grown in culture from cells with the G2019S mutation in the LRRK2 gene have elevated levels of of the Parkinson’s disease protein alpha Synuclein (Click here to read that OPEN ACCESS paper).
In this present study, the investigators wanted to know if these cells would also have elevated levels of alpha synuclein when transplanted into the brain. Their results indicate that the cells did. Next, the investigators wanted to use this transplantation model to see if the high levels of alpha synuclein in the transplanted cells would lead to the protein being passed to neighbouring cells.
Why did they want to do that?
One of the current theories regarding the mechanisms underlying the progressive spread of Parkinson’s disease is that the protein alpha synuclein is lead culprit. Under normal conditions, alpha synuclein usually floats around as an individual protein (or monomer), but sometime it starts to cluster (or aggregate) with other monomers of alpha synuclein and these form what we call oligomers. These oligomers are believed to be a toxic form of alpha synuclein that is being passed from cell to cell. And it ‘seeds’ the disease in each cell it is passed on to (Click here for a very good OPEN ACCESS review of this topic).
The passing of alpha synuclein between brain cells. Source: Nature
There have been postmortem analysis studies of the brains from people with Parkinson’s who have had cell transplantation therapy back in the 1990s. The analysis shows that some of the transplanted cells have evidence of toxic alpha synuclein in them – some of those cells have Lewy bodies in them, suggesting that the disease has been passed on to the healthy introduced cells from the diseased brain (Click here for the OPEN ACCESS research report about this).
In the current bioRxiv study, the investigators wanted to ask the reverse question:
Can unhealthy, toxic alpha synuclein producing cells cause the disease to spread into a healthy brain?
So after transplanted the Lrrk2 mutant cells into the brains of mice, they waited 11 weeks to see if the alpha synuclein would be passed on to the surrounding brain. According to their results, the unhealthy alpha synuclein did not transfer. They found no increase in levels of alpha synuclein in the cells surrounding the transplanted cells. The researchers concluded that within the parameters of their experiment, Parkinson’s disease-associated alpha synuclein spreading was not detected.
Interesting. When will this manuscript be published in a scientific journal?
We have no idea.
One sad truth of the old system of publication is: it may never be.
And this illustrates one of the beautiful features of bioRxiv.
This manuscript is probably going through the peer-review process at a particular scientific journal at the moment in order for it to be properly published. It is a process that will take several months. Independent reviewers will provide a critique of the work and either agree that it is ready for publication, suggest improvements that should be made before it can be published, or reject it outright due to possible flaws or general lack of impact (depending on the calibre of the journal – the big journals seem to only want sexy science). It is a brutal procedure and some manuscripts never actually survive it to get published, thus depriving the world of what should be freely available research results.
And this is where bioRxiv provides us with a useful forum to present scientific biological research that may never reach publication. Perhaps the researchers never actually intended to publish their findings, and just wanted to let the world know that someone had attempted the experiment and these are the results they got (there is a terrible bias in the world of research publishing to only publish positive results).
The point is: with bioRxiv we can have free access to the research before it is published and we do not have to wait for the slow peer-review process.
And there is definitely some public good in that.
EDITORS NOTE HERE: We are not suggesting for a second that the peer-review process should be done away with. The peer-review process is an essential and necessary aspect of scientific research, which helps to limit fraud and inaccuracies in the science being conducted.
What does it all mean?
This post may be boring for some of our regular readers, but it is important for everyone to understand that there are powerful forces at work in the background of scientific research that will determine the future of how information is disseminated to both the research community and general population. It is useful to be aware of these changes.
We hope that some of our readers will be bold/adventurous and have a look at some of what is on offer in the BioRxiv database. Maybe not now, but in the future. It will hopefully become a tremendous resource.
And we certainly encourage fellow researchers to use it (most of the big journals now accept preprint manuscripts being made available on sites like bioRxiv – click here to see a list of the journals that accept this practise) and some journals also allow authors to submit their manuscript directly to a journal’s submission system through bioRxiv via the bioRxiv to Journals (B2J) initiative (Click here for a list of the journals accepting this practise).
The times they are a changing…
The banner for today’s post was sourced from ScienceMag
Our policy at the SoPD is not to advertise or endorse commercial products or services. This is to avoid any ethical or conflict of interest situations.
Every now and then, however, we see something that we believe will be of interest and value to the Parkinson’s community…aaand we bend our policy rule book.
Today the Journal of Parkinson’s disease released a “200 years of Parkinson’s disease” OPEN ACCESS special issue of their journal which highlights some of the major discoveries in the field of Parkinson’s disease research.
Critically, the articles provide insights into how the discoveries were made, and they are written by some of the biggest names in the Parkinson’s research community (many of whom were actually there when the discoveries were made).
The issue has articles dealing with topics including:
Click here to see all of the articles in this special issue.
We fully recommend readers take advantage of this OPEN ACCESS issue and learn about how some of these great discoveries were made.
Full disclosure: The Journal of Parkinson’s disease is a product of IOS Press. The SoPD has not been approached by or made any offers to IOS Press or anyone at the Journal of Parkinson’s disease. We merely thought that the material in this particular OPEN ACCESS issue would be of interest to our readers.