Exploring Human Potential

“Zika” meets “Bayh-Dole Act” meets “Twitter”

Posted on | March 30, 2016 | 8 Comments

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Mike Magee

Few on the planet remain unfamiliar with an infectious disease threat that was invisible to most a year or so ago – the Zika virus. It’s association with microcephaly and original concentrated appearance in Brazil (home to the 2016 Summer Olympics) has created the image-driven, news barrage that publicized the threat. All of the above has created a sense of urgency among scientists to discover and unleash a technologic solution.

The blood sucking carrier of Zika is well known – Aedes aegypt. The mosquito not only spreads Zika, but also yellow fever, dengue fever and chikungunya, a miserable infection that attacks the joints. In short, there is little sympathy for the mosquito. But it is its’ association with birth defects that makes it a unique and pressing public health emergency since at least 1/2 of the planet’s pregnancies are unintended, and exposure to Zika early in pregnancy carries a high chance of conceiving a severely disabled child.

There are quite a few scientists out there who are experts when it comes to Aedes aegypti, and not surprisingly, there have been a range of views on how to halt its’ scourge. But nearly all lead back to the genetic structure of this mosquito, and altering it in a manner that sterilizes or limits the growth of the mosquito or the reach of its vector.

We tend to think of our scientific community as integrated and unified, especially when confronted with a urgent challenge of this magnitude. One envisions a emergency meeting in Bethesda, a defined action plan with timelines, and plenty of funding. But the truth is, and has been since 1980, that America’s scientists are an independent, entrepreneurial, competitive, and patent-conscious lot that can be difficult to herd. As Rockefeller University mosquito expert, Leslie B. Vosshall, put it to a New York Times reporter, when commenting on defining the bug’s genetic code, “For a long time, I think we all thought the map was somebody else’s job.”

Now there is an Aedes Genome Working Group, but it wasn’t pulled together in Washington. It began with a Twitter post from Vosshall that read, “The Aedes aegypti mosquito is infecting millions with #Zika and #Dengue, but we still haven’t put all the pieces of its genome together”.

The subsequent professional chatter led to a coalescence of experts who eventually managed to scrape together a bare minimum of funds to start the process. They weren’t starting from scratch – but almost. There was a genetic mapping of the mosquito back in 2007 – but it is fragmented and so compromised as to make it relatively useless. To be clear. This not an easy task. The Aedes has only 3 chromosomes in its nucleus, but they contain an estimated 1.3 billion “letters” in their DNA sequence.

The good news is that DNA sequencing technology has come a long way since 2007. Still, it’s a challenge, which is why the work group is pursuing three different approaches in parallel, not certain which will unlock the code fastest and most accurately. What all members agree on is that genetic mapping is key to addressing the challenge.

Finally, there is the issue of what to do with the map once you get it. Do you attempt to genetically engineer future sterility into the breed? Could you direct the mosquito to avoid biting humans, and engineer a preference for other animal species? What happens if the engineered gene jumps species, and escapes human control? Quickly then, science technology morphs into science policy.

There was a time when scientific progress was highly centralized nationwide, when any discovery partially funded by a federal grant became the intellectual property of the U.S. government. But this approach discouraged profit seeking organizations from developing real-life applications for the discoveries.

In fact, by 1978, 28,000 scientific patents sat dormant on shelves in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington.(58) On December 12, 1980, all that changed when an outgoing Jimmy Carter signed the Bayh-Dole Bill giving academicians and their institutions (and subsequent corporate investors) control over applied discovery profits.

The response was dramatic. While 380 patents were granted to them in 1980, that number soared to 3088 by 2009. According to one estimate, the resultant impact on the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached $47 billion in 1996, and soared to $187 billion a decade later. Since 1980, 2,200 new companies appeared and generated more than 1000 new products. As important, the new technologies spawned entirely new industries in the United States including the field of biotechnology.

Twenty years later, The Economist commented that: “Possibly the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America over the past half-century was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980….More than anything, this single policy measure helped to reverse America’s precipitous slide into industrial irrelevance.” But that very same publication rescinded its glowing portrayal, just three years later, in an article titled, “Bayhing for blood or Doling out cash?”(78)

As that article states, “Many scientists, economists and lawyers believe the act distorts the mission of universities, diverting them from the pursuit of basic knowledge, which is freely disseminated, to a focused search for results that have practical and industrial purposes…it makes American academic institutions behave more like businesses than neutral arbiters of truth… Researchers (and particularly their minders in university patent-licensing offices) are increasingly reluctant to share materials and knowledge with others unless such sharing is accompanied by legal agreements about ‘reach-through’ royalties on potential findings and the right to restrict publication of results.”

And so, the fate of women of child bearing age, at risk from Zika, relies on the good will, brilliance and drive of individual entrepreneurial scientists who somehow manage to discover each other…sometimes, as in this case, on Twitter. As our planet becomes smaller, and our problems larger and more complex, such a free-wielding approach may be fatally flawed.


8 Responses to ““Zika” meets “Bayh-Dole Act” meets “Twitter””

  1. “Zika” meets “Bayh-Dole Act” meets “Twitter” – Donald M. Hayes Blog
    March 30th, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    […] post “Zika” meets “Bayh-Dole Act” meets “Twitter” appeared first on […]

  2. healthable
    April 2nd, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

    Very informative, Thanks

  3. Denise Link
    April 11th, 2016 @ 8:01 am
  4. Mike Magee
    April 11th, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    Thanks, Denise.

  5. Jesse Williams
    October 4th, 2016 @ 5:06 am

    Nice Information , I have to say that for the last few of hours i have been hooked by the impressive articles on this website. Keep up the wonderful work.

  6. Mike Magee
    October 4th, 2016 @ 8:50 am

    Thanks, Jesse!

  7. CiCi Elle
    September 26th, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

    Zika is a huge concern for the elderly as well as pregnant women! A local ALF feared they had a breakout recently in Florida.

  8. Mike Magee
    September 28th, 2017 @ 11:41 am

    Thanks for sharing this CiCi!

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