Effect Measure

Excitement, then irritation. That was my reaction to a news article in Nature about a technique using a protein to switch off nerve firing when activated by light:

There were audible gasps and spontaneous applause at a neuroscience meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February, when Ed Boyden described a protein that switches off nerve firing when activated by light. And when Karl Deisseroth told the fuller story of the protein, called NpHR and published in this week’s Nature, at Cold Spring Harbor in New York late last month, there was talk of a revolution in neuroscience. It is perhaps no surprise that intellectual-property disputes are looming. (Nature)

It was the last sentence that got me going. If this is truly a revolutionary new technique in neuroscience, then it should be given to science, no strings attached, no permission to use it required. Even without considering tat public monies used to develop it, neither of the two main patent contenders, Stanford University and MIT, has any moral right to obtain a patent on the technique. It doesn’t “belong” to anyone, any more than a life form should belong to anyone (tell that to the US Patent Office!). If they claim they “enabled” the work to get done, then what about the Open Access journal (X. Han and E. S. Boyden PLoS One 2, e299; 2007) that rushed the first report into print so that priority could be established? Should they get a piece of the action, too?

While the technique may someday have important practical applications, its main use at the moment is in basic neuroscience studies, “dissecting the role of different types of neurons in the circuits of both healthy and diseased brains. Deisseroth plans to use mice that express both proteins to identify targets relevant to depression, whereas Boyden plans work on mouse models of epilepsy, depression and Parkinson’s disease.” To their credit, the researchers (as opposed to their institutions) are reported to be generous in sharing the material and knowledge:

Both researchers are distributing the NpHR protein to colleagues around the world, such as Sergey Kasparov at the University of Bristol, UK, who studies neurotransmitter release. When Kasparov heard about Deisseroth’s work, he jettisoned a complicated plan to silence neurons that use noradrenaline as a transmitter: “The question we were posing is better answered by the light-activated protein technology.”

Another researcher keen to use the protein is David Kleinfeld of the University of California, San Diego, who is tracing the neuronal pathways that mediate touch sensations. “I moved very quickly to get a material-transfer agreement after we heard Deisseroth talk about the work,” he says. “We are really psyched up about it.”

I feel awkward praising scientists for acting the way they are supposed to act, but in this day and age it isn’t so common. Some of today’s bad behavior is the product of a grasping and avaricious culture among university administrators who couldn’t care less about the science but care a great deal about “development money”:

But Petersen cautions that the intellectual-property issues surrounding such a significant technology “should be huge”. So far, the parties involved are commenting little on the conflicting claims. Deisseroth points out that Boyden was supported by his Stanford lab when the work on NpHR began there. But both claims may have to fight their way round a 1991 patent awarded to Japanese scientists, which broadly covers light-activated channels.

That would be the biggest joke of all. The illegitimate claims of two universities trumped by the stale and just as illegitimate claims of another one. They deserve each other. But what did the rest of us do to deserve them?