Issue 11 / 30 March 2015

IN a world where private corporations can patent human genes, it’s encouraging to find examples of information being freely shared for the benefit of humanity.

When Jonas Salk was asked in 1955 who owned the patent to the polio vaccine he had invented, he famously replied: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Well, somewhere, somehow, somebody is probably trying to.

Salk was not opposed to the idea of patents as such, as this article in Slate makes clear, but he did believe the fruits of publicly funded research should be as accessible as possible.

The free sharing of intellectual property is hardly common in medical research and development these days: corporations seek to artificially extend patents by making miniscule alterations to formulas, they battle generic drug manufacturers in the courts, and some corporations have even succeeded in patenting human genes.

Patents provide the financial incentive for industry to undertake expensive, risky research — and fair enough too.

But it’s encouraging to see that the culture of sharing has not entirely disappeared from the contemporary world.

Open source software has, over recent decades, transformed the world of software engineering. This is software created — and modified — by developers around the world, with the code made available free of charge to anyone who wants it.

Now, an international team of neuroscientists suggests something similar could be about to happen in biomedical research with the arrival of “open labware”, which allows the 3D printing of scientific and medical equipment, using freely shared designs and software.

This has the potential to dramatically reduce costs, especially in developing countries, the neuroscientists write in PLOS Biology (appropriately enough, an open access journal).

Another team of researchers last year set out to establish the viability of 3D printing plastic surgical instruments, producing a functional and sterile surgical retractor for a tenth of the cost of a stainless steel one.

This development had “far reaching implications for surgery in some underserved and less developed parts of the world”, they wrote in the Journal of Surgical Research.

Most 3D printers today use various kinds of plastic, printing according to pre-coded designs, but some can also use metals, and the range of possible materials is expanding all the time.

The technology has been touted as a possible means of producing “print-at-home” pharmaceuticals, prostheses and even organs “printed” using the recipient’s own DNA.

Some of those possibilities are more distant than others, and all of them pose potential regulatory and quality control concerns, but the idea that essential medical supplies could be produced locally and cheaply in remote and disadvantaged parts of the world is an exciting one.

The coders who create — and freely share — the software that could make that happen deserve to be congratulated.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

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