Sage Bionetworks Moves from Thinking Stage to Doing Stage

4/18/12Follow @xconomy

Three years ago, Stephen Friend started a nonprofit with a bold vision to speed up drug discovery, which might represent the biggest cat-herding exercise in the history of biology. If it sounds equal parts promising and daunting, it should.

The idea of creating an open-source movement for biology—a field in which scientists and corporations guard their data under lock and key before presenting carefully selected findings—hasn’t caught on like Wikipedia or Facebook. But this week, Seattle-based Sage Bionetworks is organizing its third annual Commons Congress in San Francisco, to keep building momentum for a movement in which researchers share more of their experimental data and models in the open. The conference, which Friend started three years ago with genomics whiz Eric Schadt, will bring together 250 forward thinkers in person, and more online, from academic science, Big Pharma, biotech, government agencies, and patient advocacy groups.

From the beginning, Friend, a former senior vice president at Merck, said he was on a five-year journey to see if Sage Bionetworks could help create a common place online where scientists could pool their data and brainpower to speed up the pace of discovery and drug development. His reasoning was that biology had become far too complex for any lone researcher or Big Pharma company to keep tackling problems in isolation. By coaxing all kinds of players to participate in an open commons, where scientists pool data on everything from DNA to RNA to proteins to clinical observations of disease, Sage is hoping to help researchers connect dots that might not otherwise ever be connected.

There are a million reasons why such an effort might never fly, and Friend has surely heard them all. There’s the technical part (new software needs to be created). There’s legal (consent forms need to be drafted). There’s a cultural aspect (scientific attitudes and career incentives need to change). And don’t forget the financial part (who will pay for all of this?) and the political/ethical dimension (isn’t all this genomic data going to violate someone’s privacy, or open the door for genetic discrimination?).

Entering Year Three, Friend says it’s time for the open-source movement to build on its early work thinking through the opportunities and challenges, and to make headway on getting more collaborative projects up and running.

“The first year was about ‘imagine a world where …,” Friend says. “We were trying to get people to frame the idea of what they wanted. The second year, we were beginning to do some pilot projects. It was about building better maps of disease together.”

Now, he wants to see more pilot projects in various disease settings, with more people participating and sharing their lessons learned. Even though the invite-only event is maxed out with 250 attendees, Friend says he’s confident the Congress will have a much bigger pool of participants this year on the Web. “I think there is a possibility this year of having thousands of people watching the webcast live,” Friend says. “In the past, we had hundreds of people. We have medical students from Pakistan and China waking up in the middle of the night to call into this thing. We have basic scientists in Sweden and the Netherlands getting up in wee hours.”

The grassroots support from graduate students and postdocs around the world is a critical new ingredient for Sage, which already has quite a few prominent allies helping to spread the word. This year’s group of speakers at the Congress includes leading genomics researchers like Harvard University’s George Church and UC Santa Cruz’s David Haussler; Stanford University legal scholar Lawrence Lessig; PatientsLikeMe founder Jamie Heywood; and Rick Klausner, the former director of the National Cancer Institute. Sage also has rallied some sponsorship support from big institutions in pharmaceuticals, software, data, and entrepreneurship.

But as someone who attended the Congress in its first two years, I recall Friend emphasizing how critical it is that attendees commit to taking certain actions in the other 363 days a year they aren’t attending the conference, to keep the momentum going. My pledge was … Next Page »

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