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Should Biology Go Open Source? Join the Debate June 16 With Phil Sharp and Stephen Friend

Xconomy Boston — 

Biology has long been based on a model in which scientists think up a dynamite experiment, gather data, keep it all close to the vest, and publish the (hoped-for) blockbuster results in a top peer-reviewed journal. Like many biologists, MIT’s Phil Sharp made his name following this time-honored method for discovering and disseminating knowledge.

Now along comes Stephen Friend, the former senior vice president of cancer research at Merck, saying the model is woefully out of date. The only way biology can really advance, and help us develop better drugs, is to break with tradition. Biologists have to embrace an open-source, collaborative movement, Friend says, in which academics and industrial scientists share vast troves of data in real-time on DNA, RNA, proteins, and clinical observations of disease. Done right, he says, and it will help scientists weed out the duds early in drug development, and help predict which individual patients will respond to certain treatments.

Friend has secured a number of high-profile backers for this fledgling idea at Seattle-based Sage Bionetworks. The cast of supporters includes Merck, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and the National Cancer Institute, to name a few. But despite the strong support, there are still plenty of skeptics who wonder how this is all really supposed to work. That’s why I’m really excited to bring together these two leaders in biology, Sharp and Friend, for a lively debate on the pros and cons of moving the field in this direction. I will moderate a keynote chat between these two luminaries at Xconomy’s biggest event of the year, XSITE, coming up on June 16 at Babson College in Wellesley, MA.

These two guys know each other well, as Friend has maintained a position on the leadership council of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, where Sharp is on the faculty. Yet when I look at the founding members who have agreed to pour experimental data out into Sage’s open commons, I see top scientific names from Columbia University, Stanford University, and UC San Diego, but not MIT. I look forward to probing these guys for engaging conversation about why the open source movement in biology hasn’t caught fire like it has in software, and what needs to occur if this is ever going to catch on in a big way.

As always, a big part of my role will be to help people in the audience pose their own questions to the great speakers. I’m looking forward to hearing your questions, and their answers. See you there June 16 at XSITE.