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Realising European potential in synthetic biology | December 2010 |

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Realising European potential in synthetic biology | December 2010 |    21

2008) that synthetic biology by encompassing entities 

that are discrete and isolable is, in theory, well suited to 

commodifi cation, at least by comparison with intellectual 

property in systems biology.

In a report on IPR issues more generally, the Royal Society 

(2003) also warned of the consequences if patents are 

too broad in scope, deterring other researchers, and 

recommended that public authorities should make 

explicit to their patent offi ces their duty to examine 

patent applications appropriately. In the fi eld of synthetic 

biology, there is still a concern that groups may gain a 

dominant, monopolistic, advantage from broad patents 

that then act to deter translation into products of research 

by other groups. For example, one US patent granted in 

2003 covers ‘chemical synthesis and assembly of genes 

and genomes’ that might be construed very broadly


EASAC reiterates the advice that patent offi ces should be 

very careful when being asked to grant broad patents. As 

science advances, patent offi ces must learn to apply more 

stringent examination of claims for function, novelty and 

inventive effort.

Assuming that appropriately delineated and focused 

patents are granted, there is growing interest in new 

routes to sharing patented information for collective 

benefi t. One reduced-cost, approach to sharing patented 

information, which is already being used within the 

pharmaceutical industry, is the creation of patent pools. 

However, there may be practical problems in synthetic 

biology for contributors and users of patent pools to 

agree on terms in joint agreements that do not exclude 

competition and violate anti-trust laws (Henkel and 

Maurer 2009).

There may be alternatives to patents, derived from the 

models for ownership and open sharing of information 

that are used in other industries. The BIOS initiative, 

adopted initially for agricultural biotechnology R&D from 

IT community practices, is one open source model for 

sharing both patented and non-patented technologies 

that might be employed as a collaborative mechanism 

more widely in the biosciences. In synthetic biology, the 

BioBricks Foundation makes its registered regulatory and 

structural elements freely available for use. It would be 

generally helpful if more researchers donated parts to the 

common pool and if public funders linked their support 

for research to the obligation to share. One problem with 

the BioBricks-based approach, however, is that it is not 

necessarily obvious if any of the parts already have rights 

attached to them (POST 2008). It will be necessary to 

become much clearer about the legal basis of all offerings 

within an open source platform if commercialisation is to 

proceed. The options for sharing standard biological parts 

in synthetic biology based on lessons learned from other 

industrial sectors are discussed in detail by Henkel and 

Maurer (2009).

From the public policy perspective, it is also worth 

noting that patenting is not the only way to control 

Table 2   New approaches to collaborative activity in biosciences with features that may serve as models 

for synthetic biology R&D



EMBL: European Bioinformatics Institute, EU, 1998


Bioinformatics forum for interaction with users in life 

sciences industry, for research and training; aims to maximise 

benefi ts from innovation.

Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, University of Dundee, UK, 

1998 (www.ppu.mrc.ac.uk/technologies/dstt.php) 

Collaboration with pharmaceutical companies who share 

rights to exploit certain results while also contributing to 

basic research and dissemination of fundamental 

knowledge into public domain.

InnoCentive, USA, 2001 (www.innocentive.com) 

First global web community for open innovation 

marketplace, connecting public and private sectors.

Biomarkers Consortium, NIH–FDA–pharmaceutical sector, USA, 

2006 (www.biomarkersconsortium.org) 

Biomedical research partnership to develop and validate 

effi cacy and safety markers in treatment of disease.

Innovative Medicines Initiative, European Commission-pharmaceutical 

sector, EU, 2008 (www.imi.europa.eu) 

Pre-competitive research collaboration to tackle bottlenecks 

in pharmaceutical R&D.

Health Commons, supported by MIT, USA, 2009 


Virtual marketplace to share data, knowledge, materials and 

services to accelerate research.

Sage bionetwork, USA, 2009 (www.sagebase.org) 

Seed money from private sources to build integrative, open 

access platforms and databases for complex predictive 

models of disease. Constitution of this Commons is being 

drafted to cover formal standards, rules and rewards.


US patent 6,521,427 issued to Egea Biosciences in 2003, cited by May (2009).

22    | December 2010 | Realising European potential in synthetic biology 


range of other public-private research partnerships

many of which include signifi cant commitment to open 

innovation. Some examples are listed in Table 2, mainly 

drawn from biomedical research, to illustrate the range 

of initiatives that may serve as potential models for 

data sharing in synthetic biology. However, many of 

these initiatives still have questions to answer relating 

to where the value is created in R&D, and how it should 

be rewarded.

development of a fi eld: the creation of standards can 

also determine R&D directions. Thus, the interface 

between standard setting and IPR may become critical 

for synthetic biology policy-making. EASAC encourages 

the academies to help to take forward clarifi cation 

of the options for freedom to operate in building an 

open, standardised, co-operative research environment 

while encouraging investment and avoiding infringing 

existing rights. Lessons can be learned from a wide 

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