Structural Biologists Pause for Patents

Staff Writer

AIRLIE, VIRGINIA--In the 1990s, gene sequencers were under the gun to make their raw data public as rapidly as possible. Now, it's the turn of the gem-cutters of biology--the people who decipher the shape of protein molecules--and some are not too comfortable with the notion. Last week, international leaders of the field rejected a proposal to give away structural coordinates from high-throughput labs within 3 weeks of completion. Instead, at a meeting here on 4 to 6 April, they agreed to speed up data release, but on a timetable that will allow for the filing of patents.

The plan for releasing data within 3 weeks was drafted at a meeting of some of the same researchers a year ago in Hinxton, U.K. Many said that plan reflected the ideals of British scientists, who were among the leaders in pushing for rapid release of genome data.

But several participants in this year's meeting said the proposed short deadlines wouldn't allow enough time to refine and validate structural information. Others, noting that structural data may be valuable for drug design, argued frankly that too-rapid data release would impede patenting. In the end, the group endorsed the release of "most" protein structures "as rapidly as possible," with a maximum delay of 6 months for proteins of "special interest." Today, the rule is that investigators release structural coordinates, or the three-dimensional measurements that describe a crystal's shape, when they publish a structure.

A minority objected to the 6-month rule, but didn't dissent. "This is a complete reversal" of earlier goals, said Cyrus Chothia, a theoretician of structural biology at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K. He chided his colleagues for what he saw as a retreat from data sharing. One meeting organizer detected signs of gambler's fever in the patent discussion: "It reminds me of the lottery," he said. "Very few people will win, but everyone dreams they will."

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