Would Jonas Salk Join the Open-Source Movement?

Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images

Jonas Salk was born 100 years ago in New York, and Google is celebrating the anniversary of his birth with a homepage Doodle depicting the creator of the first successful inactivated polio vaccine with a sidewalk full of grateful children. While Salk’s lasting impression on medicine and its place in society is obvious, his philosophy on the patent-free development of the polio vaccine — and its applicability to the increasing influence of technology on biological and biomedical research — is also an important part of what he left behind.

According to the Salk Institute’s biography on the iconic researcher, he received his medical degree in 1939 from the New York University School of Medicine, and in 1947 became director of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Virus Research Laboratory, where he would complete his work on the vaccine for paralytic poliomyelitis, or polio. His goal was to trigger the body’s ability to defend itself with an injection of the deactivated virus, instead of with an injection of the live, infectious virus. As the Institute’s website explains:

He was already struck by the principle of vaccination: that if the body is artificially exposed to a harmless form of a disease virus, the body will produce antibodies that resist or kill the dangerous form of the virus if later exposed. In contrast to the Pasteurian dogma of the times, Salk believed that protective immunity could be induced without infection by a living virus such as those used in the vaccines against smallpox and rabies.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Following Harvard scientist John Enders’s solution to grow the poliovirus in the test tube, and with financial backing from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Salk was able to obtain necessary quantities of the virus and develop a method to use formaldehyde to kill the poliovirus, keeping it intact enough to trigger the immune response. He then tested the vaccine with more than a million children across the country. The vaccine was pronounced safe and effective in 1955. The Institute notes:

In the two years before vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910. Salk never patented the vaccine, nor did he earn any money from his discovery, preferring to see it distributed as widely as possible.

As Michael Cavna reports for The Washington Post, Salk became an overnight hero, though his unpatented vaccine was later replaced by Albert Sabin’s cheaper “live virus” vaccine. Salk built his La Jolla biological studies center in the 1960s, with the mission of creating “an independent research center where a community of scholars interested in different aspects of biology – the study of life – could come together to follow their curiosity,” according to the Salk Institute.

But on the day that his vaccine was pronounced safe and effective, Salk told reporter Edward R. Murrow, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Those words speak to Salk’s status as a hero, a messiah, even, to the American people, who saw the virus paralyze as many as 20,000 children every year in the years before the vaccine was available. Telling Murrow that the people owned the vaccine, Salk touched off a debate that is still relevant to us half a century later.

Brian Palmer reported for Slate that in the year that the vaccine was unveiled, 80 million people donated to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which spearheaded the effort to make the vaccine widely available. The foundation’s modern-day name, the March of Dimes, nods to the fact that many donors could only afford to give a few cents, but donated anyway.

Salk and the organization agreed that the public had already paid for the vaccine with those donations, and that the vaccine belonged to the people. The organization was a nonprofit and research center, and didn’t need to profit from the vaccine. And while it might not have been wholly accurate to characterize the vaccine as akin to the sun, given that most vaccines represent feats of engineering — invention, rather than simple discovery — the comparison seems to accurately represent how vital the vaccine was perceived to be when polio was paralyzing thousands of children every year.

Salk’s quote has been referred to with increasing frequency as the open-source mindset, which saw its beginnings with software developers and the choice to open source code for exploration and innovation, spreads to other areas of technology. A recent example of a company choosing to forgo the traditional protections of patents is Tesla, which this summer opened its patents to others who could use the technology to push the electric car forward into the mainstream. As Chief Executive Elon Musk wrote in a June blog post on Tesla’s website, the company released its patents “in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology,” prompting headlines heralding the CEO as “the Jonas Salk of our time.”

As Musk wrote at the time, explaining the decision to make the company’s patented technology available to anyone:

Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

Further, Musk noted that technology leadership “is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.” While the advent of electric cars isn’t an exact comparison to the eradication of polio, both Musk and Salk used current technology to tackle a problem in the world, and to make their solution accessible. That accessibility is designed to make the eradication of the adversary — polio on Salk’s part, gasoline cars on Musk’s — that much more attainable.

Musk’s decision to release Tesla’s patents is aimed at pushing electric cars into the mainstream by enabling other manufacturers to adopt and iterate on Tesla’s technology. The choice calls to mind many other notable players in the tech industry, but there is perhaps no better example than Google. With Android, the open-source mobile operating system, Google has become dominant the world over by making it easy for device manufacturers to build phones and tablets that run the software.

The open-source approach is also being applied to medicine — and in one rather unusual case, to the development of an anticancer drug that’s currently in the final hours of its crowdfunding campaign. As Tech Cheat Sheet reported recently, a researcher named Isaac Yonemoto is taking an open-source approach to cancer research with Project Marilyn, an initiative to develop a patent-free cancer drug using a compound called 9-deoxysibiromycinor 9DS.

Sibiromycin, 9DS’s parent compound, is a toxic compound derived from soil bacteria and functions. Sibiromycin arrests DNA replication, and was originally researched in the 1970s by Siberian scientists, and 9DS was later developed by Barbara Gerratana at the University of Maryland, College Park. Gerratana took a job at the National Institute of Health and was unable to continue the research. It’s thought that 9DS will be effective against several types of cancer. But because the work was unpatented, pharmaceutical companies were unlikely to sponsor the expensive process of further developing and trialing the drug. So, why make drugs without patents, Yonemoto asks on Indysci.org?

When Salk and Sabin cured polio, they didn’t patent the vaccine. It’s time to develop a patent-free anticancer drug for the 21st century. The software industry and the open-source movement have shown that patenting is not necessary for innovation.  Releasing without a patent means the drugs will be cheaper and it will be easier to build on the work to make improved drugs or drug combinations. Releasing without a patent means expanded access to drugs in countries that can’t afford extensive licensing and export agreements.

The project has so far raised about $56K and about $4K in Bitcoin, but critics argue that simply funding a drug through the xenograft experiment (testing the drug on mice) isn’t enough to demonstrate the viability of funding a drug through the entire development process — including the costly process of preparing for and conducting clinical trials — without the expertise and financial backing of a pharmaceutical company. If a pharmaceutical company can’t make money from an unpatented drug, a significant investment seems unlikely — especially given that cancer, unlike polio, is not a single disease that can be solved with a single cure. Instead, cancer exists in thousands of forms, and researchers will need huge investments to develop hundreds of different therapies.

No matter the size of the public health problem, critics of the open-source approach say pharmaceutical companies will still need to make money to recoup the investments that they made in drug development. While researchers and consumers alike rail against the high price tags that pharmaceutical companies put on their drugs, it’s a complicated issue. Drugs are expensive to develop, and expensive for consumers to access.

While Yonemoto’s approach seems, in many ways, a return to the mid-century research practices that saw Salk’s patent-free development and distribution of the polio vaccine, the crowdfunded campaign also takes its cues from the increasing influence of computer science on biology and medicine. That transition is only accelerated by the increasing pace of technological advances, like researchers’ new ability to inexpensively and quickly sequence an entire human genome.

As we reported early in October, that technology has made it possible for researchers to approach medical problems as they would tackle the process of designing a large software system. Google X’s Baseline Study and the company’s backing of ventures like Calico, demonstrate the relevance of computing prowess to researchers’ efforts to crack the body’s code on health, aging, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer.

An increasing number of human genomes will be sequenced each year by researchers around the world, and a growing number of labs that offer the service to consumers will theoretically contribute to a better understanding of the largely-unknown language of DNA. Making genetic data or medical research open-source could also bring the same benefits that an open-source approach has brought to software projects.

Developers with diverse areas of expertise are able to push software further and in new directions when they can access the source code. While the same may be true of the genetic code that technology has made more accessible, medicine’s limited understanding of what different genetic code actually means demonstrates that it’s a complex language that we are only gradually learning to speak.

While genetic research is an area that seems prime for an open-source approach, the ethics of making such personal data accessible to anyone is a complex question that has yet to be answered, or even yet seriously debated. Even giving researchers full access to patients’ entire genomes comes with security and privacy risks. With Google’s Baseline Study, once someone has access to a sequence, there are many online services where they could cross-reference it, including Ancestry.com or Family Tree DNA, to gain more information about the patient. Hosting the information publicly would represent an entirely new risk to — perhaps even disregard for — patients’ privacy.

Salk died at the age of 80 in 1995. Since then, a new, complex system of drug research, development, manufacturing, and distribution has evolved. While Salk’s development of the polio vaccine is frequently used as a counterargument to the monetization of the development of pharmaceuticals, Salk himself most likely wouldn’t unilaterally advocate for or against any of the models that researchers currently use to develop drugs and other technology. The invention and development of any product — from an anticancer drug to an electric car — is expensive. Sometimes, an innovation can be financed by crowdfunding, but other times it will need a powerful company behind it to pick up the tab on the costly research process — be that a pharmaceutical company or one of the Googles of the world.

Regardless of a researcher’s stance on the ideology of making a drug therapy or even a technology like Tesla’s electric cars accessible to anyone who wants to use the idea, it’s clear that neither focusing single-mindedly on turning a profit or eschewing profit and all traditional funding systems to bring benefits to the public is the best way to bring the benefits of new technology to a society.

It’s unlikely that Salk would advocate for making all drug research open-source, especially if that choice would stand in the way of the drug actually being developed. Afterall, a technology can only change the world after it’s been brought into the world. Whether open-source, unpatented, or secured under traditional intellectual property protections, technologies and medical therapies all need to fund the research, development, and trials that make them a reality. Intellectual property laws incentivize the completion of research that will benefit the public, including its health. There is nothing wrong with researchers acknowledging the financial realities of the research process — or even recognizing the financial incentive of innovation.

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