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Message from the MGH

Peter L. Slavin and David F. Torchiana suggest an updated approach to intellectual property rights to optimize innovation.

Fall 2010
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Medical advances begin with an idea that is then refined, tested, developed and commercialized. While the ultimate goal may be to prevent or cure disease, getting to that end point often means moving from the cloistered world of academia to industry, which has profits and shareholders to take into account. To attract companies to what can be a long, expensive and uncertain process, protections must be in place so others cannot poach the same idea and win the race to the marketplace.

letter from mgh

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Yet the restrictions on access to technology offered by licensing and patents, as crucial as they are for motivating industry to invest, can limit access by other scientists who might have their own ideas about how to improve on an innovation. Scientific progress is iterative, and sharing knowledge is a prerequisite for biomedical progress.

So where is the balance between permitting access to a technology for the sake of further innovation and restricting it to protect industry’s investment? Our story about zinc fingers illustrates the tension between the two. It poses the difficult question of whether, in this case, the business side of generating these tiny, remarkable engineered proteins could be hindering medical progress.

One company holds most of the patents and licenses for zinc fingers, and scientists who want to explore potential applications must pay for access and abide by tight restrictions. Yet as the potential of the technology expands and more and more researchers get involved, it’s likely to peck its way out of this shell of intellectual property. Already, scrambling to find alternative methods to produce and deploy zinc fingers, a consortium of researchers has discovered new ways to produce the proteins, opening the field to a wider pool of scientists.

The model of scientific innovation and progress today is highly diffuse, full of driven people who just want to get their hands on the tools they need to do their jobs. Perhaps it is time to craft an updated approach to intellectual property rights that involves a more symbiotic relationship between supplier and customers—one that reflects the reality of biomedical research in 2010.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians
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