Photo: Jennifer Molloy

Is your reality quite different from other people’s reality?

While open innovation may be seen as a way of cutting costs by shutting down in-house R&D in favour of promoting spin-offs, start-ups, and biotech SMEs, the open science movement aims to establish a completely new model for how to spur innovation. Eliminating intellectual property-related restrictions, open biology promises rapid and local production of biomaterials, dia­gnostics, or genome-edited crops in countries with no established IP system.

EuroBiotech_You are an apologist for open science. What’s the benefit of openness?
Molloy_Open science can mean different things, like open access to scientific publications, open access to data repositories, or open-source scientific hard- and software tools. It is a fairly new concept that has shown some promising success in the past and, I believe, will make an even bigger impact in the future. I would like to convince policy-makers, industry representatives, and other stakeholders that – depending on the problem that has to be tackled – open science can be a viable alternative to the tried-and-tested intellectual property (IP)-based innovation model.

EuroBiotech_Let’s take drug discovery and development as an example. Are companies active in this field embracing open science?
Molloy_This is an area where the industry started to see the benefits of data sharing, IP sharing, and new models of collaboration. For instance, the area of tropical diseases is one where market mechanisms have failed to bring much-needed medicines to market for decades. Open science efforts to combat malaria are based on a whole bunch of targets known as the Tres Cantos Collection released by the British pharma company GSK in 2010. The company established an “Open Lab” with US$8m funding, made its in-house library of 13,500 validated candidate drugs freely available, set up new collaborations in which it shared IP, and created a sustainable pricing model for the world’s most advanced malaria candidate vaccine, Mosquirix. Among the more than 160 groups working with this collection is the Open Source Malaria project. Guided by open source principles, everything is open and anyone can contribute. They have open lab meetings on Google Hangout, and the lab notebooks are also open. Companies and individuals all over the world are contributing.

EuroBiotech_That’s a great example. Yet, open science goes beyond big pharma companies giving away a small-margin business, doesn’t it?
Molloy_Exactly. The real game-changer is open-source biology, which I like to compare to open-source software. Of course, the major difference is that in the IT sector, the cost of reproduction is small. To start programming, you basically need just a computer. The infrastructure needs in biology are significantly higher. Nevertheless, biology can learn from computer science concerning collaborative processes, and the intrinsic motivation of people to engage in open innovation.

EuroBiotech_And why do they engage?
Molloy_It’s a mix of enjoyment, learning, and increased reputation. At the moment, engagement in open science does not necessarily kick-start your career – maybe even the contrary. Yet, things are changing. Open access publishing already has gained acceptance. When it comes to promotions, I think a scientist’s engagement in other fields of open science, like sharing data or developing open-source tools and reagents, will be considered increasingly in the future.

EuroBiotech_What’s the current state of open-source biology?
Molloy_Open biology is at a similar stage to where open-source software was in the 1990s: effort is fragmented, collaboration platforms are lacking, and policies are frustratingly uninformed by the practicalities faced at the grass roots level. In the Western world, there is an innovation system in place that is based on IP as a major pillar to incentivise work in the lab. But, that system is not set in stone. I want to encourage stakeholders to think about what they aim for with their innovation policies. Is the structure in place supporting this goal or working against it? The aspiration in general is that fundamental scientific knowledge is available for everyone. But, the system that we have in place is not facilitating that. Concerning the life sciences, the goal should be that the people who are in need of a certain medication will receive it, or that the people who want to improve their local crop have the possibility to do that. These things are simply not happening at the moment. Re-thinking the system is certainly a longer-term effort, and I don’t want to imply that open science is the way to go forward for each and every problem to tackle. But, I challenge prevailing narrative that the Western model is the only way available.

EuroBiotech_Many think that open science could get good traction in countries with no established IP-based innovation system. Is open science coming to Africa?
Molloy_Acts like the Bayh-Dole-Act in the US that incentivised university-based researchers were real innovation drivers. Such IP-based systems have been adopted by many countries worldwide. However, setting up such a system is a huge effort, as IP experts, tech transfer specialists, and business-minded scientists are needed. Yet, what if the government is not supportive? Or, if the education system is inefficient? Wouldn’t it be better to avoid the entire IP thicket? In the end, bringing useful innovations to those who need them is what really counts. And, for certain countries, alternative, de-centralised ways of driving innovations beyond the Western model can be the means to accomplish their goals. Reducing the friction in knowledge transfer is important – especially in a context where you have very few resources. The first, open, science-based innovation projects are running in Africa, and I’m really interested to find out what works and what does not. You don’t see a lot of issues until a new set-up is actually up and running.

EuroBiotech_How is the feedback so far?
Molloy_A lot of the people’s reaction to open-source science is that they imply naivety and ideology on my side: “It will never happen!” “You are ignoring the reality!” My response then is that your reality is quite different from other people’s reality. Why not examine all of the options?

EuroBiotech_You coordinated OpenPlant, a five year synthetic biology effort in the UK. The goal of that programme was to come up with open-source tools for engineering plants. How did it go?
Molloy_In the agrotech industry, a lot of the molecular biology technologies are owned by large multinational companies. From the tools to spur innovation, to the actual products, everything is vertically integrated in these companies. The idea of OpenPlant was to generate a bunch of tool kits and protocols for plant engineering and make this available for anyone. Now at the end of that programme, there’s now a whole range of kits for algae research, some others for crop engineering, and still others for research on the emergent plant model Marchantia polymorpha or liverwort. The toolbox is small but growing. Still running is the development of an more open cell-free protein synthesis system. These systems can be freeze-dried on paper and retain full activity after being resuspended. For molecular diagnostics, the potential for this idea is huge. Furthermore, University of Cambridge’s Jim Haseloff published an open-source DNA assembly technique last year. This Loop Assembly cloning system is provided under an OpenMTA license for unrestricted sharing and open access. The OpenMTA is a completely new, legal tool developed by OpenPlant and the BioBricks Foundation that speeds up and simplifies the sharing of vectors, bacteria, or enzymes. What many scientists tend to forget: When shipping DNA around the globe, most backbones have IP restrictions. That’s why we also developed open vectors. With the synbio community in mind, we urged commercial DNA synthesis companies to offer our open vectors alongside their standard, IP-restricted vectors. The latest success is Open Enzyme, a free, open-source collection of enzymes for DNA design introduced this autumn. Yet, it’s not the enzymes that get shipped. That’s tricky, as a reliable cold-chain is needed. Instead, robust bacterial production strains are shared. Once transported to a lab, the bacteria produce the enzymes locally for research purposes.


first published in European Biotechnology Winter Edition 2019