Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Weeds in the Laboratory

The BBC has an article titled How cancer studies wasted cash. It's about how some cancer cell lines aren't what they are supposed to be. If you aren't studying the proper cells in the first place, then not only is it embarrassing, but it can be a very costly mistake in wasted time, energy, resources, and possibly, future funding. This really isn't news though. Many cell culture lines have been found to be HeLa cells after typing. The HeLa cell line has adapted to laboratory culture growth and is a pervasive cell biology lab contaminant or cell culture "weed". The issue is about trust and attention to details. Even scientists are human, but that doesn't let them off the hook. It'd be even worse if you are the graduate student or postdoc who requested the cell line from an academic or commercial lab. Imagine if you spent several years getting results only to find that the cancer you worked on was cervical cancer instead of brain or liver cancer? Or worse, if the cells are mouse or rat. Bye-bye career due to misplaced trust.


So much cancer research seems to be:

- Overpaid Eminent Old Scientists (EOS) start Partnerships/Corporations

- get students to experiment for a year or two

- Announce startling cancer cure to world

- then explain it'll take 10 years to develop after heaps of private/govt funding received

- Docs refuse to share results for greater good (instead apply intellectual property rights).

- THEN disappears without trace.

Heaps of cash in EOS pockets.

The End

It may seem that way, and occasionally, it may be that way, but likely not. There's little money in it because of the way clinical trials are done. The way it works is, a potential treatment is found. It is patented by the university and the scientist. The graduate student/postdoc may or may not be a co-owner of the patent. The university sells the rights to the patent to a pharm who then does or does not develop it. Where a lot of money lies is:
1. find and sequence an inherited cancer causing gene.
2. patent the sequence of said gene.
3. patent the test for it based on current methods.
4. sit back and watch the money roll in.

Developing and marketing a kit is easier than developing and marketing a drug or treatment for a disease. Not to mention that we've cured cancer in mice many times over only for the same treatments to fail in humans because people are not mice.

The fact that you've found and sequenced a "natural" gene in my mind doesn't give you the right to patent it. It already existed before you came along. You do have a right to patent a diagnostic test for the gene and make money off of that. The problem is that if someone else wants to make a different diagnostic test for the same gene, they have to pay you for use of the sequence. If government funding paid for your research in the first place, then that sequence should be in the public domain.
I agree with your point about the doc and university not leaving the intellectual property in the public domain. It's not always ethical and such practices hinder further research at times.
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