New discoveries in biology are becoming commercialized so fast that profit-seeking is "contaiminating" the free and open scientific research that has made new discoveries possible, according to a leading scientist.
One problem, says Dr. Donald Kennedy, president to Stanford University, is that academic biologists who now own a share of new "biology companies" are abandoning the informal communication that marks most healthy research, partly because of the possible commerical value of new discoveries.
"At least three or four times in the past year," he reports, a biologist giving a paper at a scientific meeting has "refused on questioning to divulge some technique" because it was now "proprietary." This means other scientists can't repeat and check and build on the technique and is "not the way" science moves forward, says Kennedy, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner.
One reason for the increased ties between science and industry is the growing scarcity of federal financing for expensive research.
Two subcommittees of the House Science and Technology Committee have opened hearings on the issues raised by the fast pace at which new discoveries are moving from university laboratories to new commercial ventures -- and Wall Street.
The advisory committee to the director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda also is beginning disussion of many of the same issues.
Two main advances are creating the problems.
One is the technoloby of recombining bits of DNA, the stuff of genes, to make new biological entities for medicine, industry and agriculture. The other is a still newer way of creating hybrid cells called hybridomas.
These are identical antibodies or disease-fighting proteins formed from the division of a single cell, with huge promise in medical testing and treatment. For example, they might be used to distinguish between several different types of leukemia, where diagnosis is often difficult.They might also be used to help combat these leukemias.
The NIH discussion centers on hybridoma technology, where, according to Dr. Donald Fredrickson, NIH director, "there are problems of patents and profits" and "a general feeling" that the country's labs are becoming "compartmentalized" by reluctance to exchange new cell lines and information.
"It's much like the problems in recombinant technology," he says, but these problems seem to be growing even more rapidly because hybridomas are virtually "here" commercially, not just in the offing.
President Paul Gray of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an institution with many ties to industry, sees no reason why the problems of biotechnology can't be solved by the same kings of patent sharing and licensing that MIT already uses in many technologies.
But Kennedy saw "important differences." He saw a need for the scientific community to establish new rules about "out of bounds behavior" by scientists, like failure to share basic research information.
One reason why universities and university professors are susceptible to new commercial incursions is that federal research money is becoming tighter each year. The companies are interested mostly in profitable products.
Kennedy said industry should finance far more basic research on the campuses -- to keep the universities financially healthy, to train new scientists and to keep good scientists and teachers from deserting them for the lucrative new biological industries.