March 1, 2024

Sounding an Alarm on Space Biology

Guest Commentary

Recent advances in space biology technology have transformed biomedical research. This cutting-edge technology allows scientists to delve into the molecular details of human tissues and organs like never before. Seemingly overnight, researchers gained the power to visualize almost every gene (we have about 20,000) in every cell with spatial resolution, a monumental leap over previous methods, which were limited to a few genes in a few types of cells. cells.

This revolution is similar to the transformative shift from the Hubble Telescope to the James Webb Telescope in space science. Recognized as the 2020 “Method of the Year” by Nature’s Methods, space biology technology ushers in an innovative era. It promises to provide unprecedented insights into complex diseases, from cancer and diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

A shift to commercialization

Embarking on this exciting journey of discovery requires significant financial support. Remarkable funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has fueled pioneering scientists, turning innovative ideas into commercially available platforms. This funding is crucial to ensuring equitable access to resources by dismantling technological barriers.

The NIH advocates the transition from discovery to commercialization, where innovations reach companies and eventually impact human health. This move enables scalability and rigorous standardization, ensuring labs around the world generate high-quality, comparable data. Because these experiments can influence medical decisions, it is critical that scientists in London or Sydney get the same result from a tissue biopsy as scientists in New York City. Biotechnology companies play a fundamental role in making innovative discoveries, commercializing them and placing them in laboratories worldwide, thus advancing scientific frontiers.

An increase in litigation

Unfortunately, the promise of space biology technologies has been clouded by a troubling reality: the clash between profit, power and attempted monopolization. What should be headlines of groundbreaking advances in deadly diseases through the use of space biology are now headlines dominated by legal disputes waged by powerful companies. Instead of international collaborations driving biomedical progress, the conversation has turned to technological constraints and legal battles.

The focus is no longer on impactful discoveries, but on which companies are at risk of succumbing to legal pressure from powers with large financial resources. It’s a worrying twist in a narrative that should be about advancing science for the greater good.

In the scientific field, litigation has transformed a once exciting field into an environment full of complex and challenging situations. These conflicts are preventing small innovative companies from developing new technologies and ideas due to financial constraints, regardless of eventual legal outcomes. This poses a threat to the progress of even the most promising scientific technologies and the potential discoveries they could enable.

Unfortunately, legal battles led to the closure of promising companies that were unable to deal with the negative repercussions of these disputes. Furthermore, the litigious atmosphere is discouraging emerging companies with innovative solutions in space biology from patenting and publicizing their innovations, fearing potential lawsuits. Short-term gains for some companies come at the cost of losing valuable contributions to long-term advances in biology. The consequence is clear: legal battles are casting a shadow over scientific innovation and biomedical progress.

This legal behavior undermines the fundamental principles of innovation, transparency, access and diversity. Fear of litigation stifles innovation, leading to a lack of transparent methods. Restricted access to instrumentation, with a growing number of countries facing bans on the use of some space biology technologies.

Currently, scientists have invested in good faith in space biology technology that can no longer be used, leaving research projects supported by charitable and government funds in limbo. A similar situation now threatens even the United States. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that technological diversity is declining. Healthy market rivalries are vital for driving innovation and ensuring quality as well as competitive costs for consumers – but, in this climate, these principles are under threat.

For example, lack of competition and ongoing litigation pose a threat to patient care, particularly in laboratory settings where spatial biology analysis is used to select therapies. The Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988 established federal standards for facilities that test human samples. Only one technology from a smaller company meets the criteria needed to be implemented in CLIA labs, offering patients access to promising precision oncology therapies. However, this technology faces legal challenges that could potentially block its use.

A Call to Antitrust Action

We urge space biology companies to engage in fair competition and advocate antitrust measures. The ongoing litigious environment has had a negative impact on competitive progress, and we are concerned about the potential emergence of monopolistic behavior that could impede innovative patient care. It is a worrying situation that demands attention and reform in favor of biomedical progress.

We are at a critical crossroads and scientists are sounding the alarm. The legal battles are casting a dark shadow over the once-thriving collaborative and innovative spirit that drives the rapid progress of space biology. These legal challenges are not just court dramas; they are stifling the very momentum of scientific discovery, dimming the beacon of scientific advancement, and delaying clinical impact. It is a worrying time that demands our attention and a collective effort to safeguard the spirit of exploration and innovation in space biology.

Authors and affiliations: Miranda E. Orr, PhD, associate professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Arutha Kulasinghe, PhD, Group Leader, Clinical-o-Mx Lab, Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland. Grant R. Kolar, MD, PhD, professor of pharmacology and physiology, Saint Louis University. Holger Heyn, PhD, team leader, Single Cell Genomics Group, Spanish National Center for Genomic Analysis. Jasmine Plummer, PhD, associate fellow at St. Jude College and director of the Center for Spatial OMICs. Lasse Sommer Kristensen, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University. Jorgen Kjems, PhD, Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University. Gordon Mills, MD, PhD, professor of cell, developmental, and cancer biology and director of precision oncology, Knight Cancer Institute, Oregon Health and Science University. Juan J. Garcia-Vallejo, PhD, Associate Professor of Molecular Cell Biology and Immunology, University of Amsterdam Medical Centers, IJ Nijman, PhD, Manager, Utrecht Sequencing Facility, Bioinformatics Facility and High Performance Compute Facility. Utrecht University Medical Center (Center for Molecular Medicine) and Netherlands X-omics Institute. Nicholas P. West, PhD, Associate Professor, Central Facility for Genomics and School of Pharmacy and Medical Science, Griffith University. Amanda Cox, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Central Facility for Genomics and School of Pharmacy and Medical Science, Griffith University.

Note: This viewpoint article is based on the opinions of the authors and not their employers.

Editor’s note: See the links below for GEN’s recent coverage of the patent dispute impacting the field of space biology: story on NanoString’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, interview with Serge Saxonov, PhD, CEO of 10x Genomics, interview with Joe Beechem, PhD, CSO of NanoString.

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