November 15, 2012 by IPAlchemist
Last night I went to the RSC for another of the series of events on chemistry policy, following the two last month that I wrote about on this blog. This time, the subject was “Synthetic Biology: challenges and opportunities for the UK”.
It was another great event, but quite different from the previous ones. It was not about an individual project, unlike previously where each lecture had focused on a particular molecule (one pharmaceutical and one agrochemical). And the format was quite different too – a largish panel each spoke for about 5 minutes, and then there were a series of questions from the floor.
I was very gratified that on this occasion Twitter was encouraged, and we were provided with a hashtag #synbio2012. (Usually, in the Chemistry Centre, we are told to turn off our mobile phones because they interfere with the sound recording equipment). If you want a blow-by-blow account of the event, a search on that hashtag should work well (for a while) as there were a number of professional reporters and writers present who are highly skilled in the art of real-time tweeting (unlike your humble servant).
The event was technologically ambitious, being live-webcast, and having a live video link with a second audience at the University of Bristol. This impressive setup only failed slightly sometimes when there was a strong echo from the Bristol venue.
The impressive chairman was Dr Ehsan Masood – Editor, Research Fortnight.
Ehsan is a science writer, journalist and broadcaster. Since 2009 he has been Editor of Research Fortnight and also teaches a course in international science policy at Imperial College London. As well as writing for Prospect magazine, The Times, Guardian and Le Monde, he writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio.
The panel in London consisted of:
Dr Lionel Clarke – Chairman, UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap Coordination Group
Lionel chairs a group of independent experts who have set out A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK. Its recommendations include investing in multidisciplinary centres, an annual forum, and funding competitions to support the development of novel applications. It emphasises responsible research to support the UK taking an internationally leading role. Dr Clarke joined Shell in 1981 and has been responsible for planning and delivering strategic research programmes there for more than ten years.
Professor Robert Edwards – University of York and Chief Scientist, Food and Environment Research Agency
Professor Edwards is the Chief Scientist for FERA and a Chair in Crop Protection in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (University of York). His research focuses on countering herbicide resistance in weeds, wheat biotechnology and biorefining. His group have discovered two new classes of plant glutathione transferases and identified their roles in soy, wheat and maize herbicide metabolism.
Daisy Ginsberg – Synthetic biology writer and commentator
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is a designer, artist and writer, interrogating science, technology and new roles for design in a biotech future. As Design Fellow on Synthetic Aesthetics, an NSF/EPSRC-funded project at Stanford University and the University of Edinburgh, she is curating an international programme researching synthetic biology, art and design, investigating how we might ‘design nature’.
Helena Paul – Co-director, Econexus
Helena is a co-director of EcoNexus, an organisation analysing developments in science and technology and their impacts on environment and society. She is also involved in the international negotiations of the UN Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change. Dr Paul is currently monitoring UK research on synthetic biology, including consultation with the public and the conduct of scientists in connection with scientific uncertainty.
Described as the “chair” in Bristol, but in the event acting more like a further panelist (which was welcome, as he spoke very well indeed) was Professor Dek Woolfson – University of Bristol
Dek has been a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Bristol since 2005. His research group’s focus is the prediction and design of protein folds and their application in bionanotechnology and synthetic biology. In 2011 Professor Woolfson won the RSC Protein and Peptide Science group’s Medimmune Protein and Peptide Science award, which is awarded in recognition of excellence in any area of protein and peptide science.
It will probably be somewhat apparent from the biographies that all except Helena pretty much assumed that synthetic biology was A GOOD THING. Their discourse focused on whether it would achieve what was hoped of it, whether it had been over-hyped, and how to foster public engagement and acceptance. They were referring to (and buoyed up by) George Osborne’s speech from last week, on importance of synthetic biology to the UK, as for example reported in The Guardian.
Helena was a lone voice advocating the precautionary principle. While the others accepted that there was a serious public engagement issue to avoid a repeat of GM crops being labelled “Frankenfoods”, none of them to my mind seriously engaged with people who genuinely consider that with biological developments we need to set the bar of confidence that no harm can possibly result at a very high level indeed. It seemed as though Helena and the others were simply taking part in parallel events that were not interacting with each other.
To be clear, I do not agree with the precautionary principle being applied to developments in synthetic biology, but neither do I think that we can just carry on talking as though its proponents are not in the room. So I used my question to ask:
Is there any way to bridge gap between proponents of precautionary principle and those who do not espouse it?
Even this did not really result in what I would regard as real engagement. There was some discussion of “what would have happened if the precautionary principle had been applied to motorised transport”, which is a good point, but, as Helena did point out, ultimately irrelevant as people who advocate the precautionary principle consider that there is an issue with organisms (which are replicating) that render them fundamentally different, and in need of a far, far higher level of regulatory caution than any other technology.
My own “what if”, although equally irrelevant ultimately, is the story of CFCs. They were brought in to replace the toxic and dangerous refrigerants that were used in domestic fridges, but turned out, completely unexpectedly, to harm the ozone layer. But this was not an irreversible effect, and it is in principle possible to stop using them and return to something approximating to the status quo ante.
Having squandered my question on this issue, I did not get a chance to talk about the IP issues, although I did tweet a little on the subject. A sensible question was asked about the effect and role of IP on synthetic biology by Dylan Williams (@vitamindyl), but it did not really result in very informative answers, and I regret that I was not able to dive in.
A particularly regrettable response was from Helena, who said that she worried that patents would be used by companies to tie up the technology and hide what they were doing. Of course fundamental to the concept of patenting is disclosure, and so use of the patent system will actually help, not hinder, dissemination of the technology and publication of what is being done.
There was some talk that the “biobricks” might be open source. This may or may not turn out to be true – it might happen, but there would be no way to ensure that it happened universally.
My expectation is that the basic rules of patenting – an invention must be new and involve an inventive step to be patentable, plus the requirements of disclosure and to be not contrary to morality, will turn out to be quite sufficient to deal with the issues presented by synthetic biology, and I do not see that the discipline presents any special new issues that would require dealing with in a different way. I certainly don’t expect that it will need its own separate legal framework. How then companies choose to use IP Law – in a collaborative way or in a proprietary way – or, as is most likely, as a mixture of the two – remains to be seen. But I am confident that the patent system will provide within itself the necessary flexibility to underpin whatever approaches are adopted.
A final observation. It is curious that no-one actually defined what they meant by “synthetic biology”. While I heard “it is not genetic engineering”, and I heard various qualities attributed to it, no-one actually said what they considered the term to encompass. Since the semantic meaning of the term is rather vague, if we are going to discuss issues like what will it do and how should it be regulated, I think we do need precision about the scope of the terminology. I slightly formed the impression, although I could well be mistaken, that not all the panelists and question askers were assuming the same meaning.
Final verdict – a fascinating evening and I look forward to another.
October 24, 2012 by IPAlchemist
My current job.
I am a patent attorney, partner in the intellectual property law firm EIP, and head of its chemistry practice group, EIP Elements. This covers pharmaceuticals, food science, process chemistry, polymers, agrochemicals, batteries, inks, and all sorts of other fascinating things.
What I do in a standard “work day.”
A lot of reading of patent documents and other “prior art” (which can be journal articles, abstracts…). A lot of writing as well: huge volume of emails; drafting patent documents; writing letters to the patent office, or other patent attorneys in other countries; and of course writing to my clients giving opinions, advice, and reports.
Although the work runs the danger of being solitary, I make it collaborative by talking to my colleagues – getting second opinions, arguing over obscure rules of grammar or punctuation, or discussing knotty legal problems.
There is quite a lot of travelling – I get to go to Japan and the USA quite regularly, and Munich (the seat of the European Patent Office) often. My favourite place to visit has been Jurong Island in Singapore, which is a vast agglomeration of chemical plants and an amazing sight.
What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?
The chemistry degree was essential – you cannot even train as a patent attorney in Europe without a science or engineering degree, and you can only practise in a technical field that you understand. It was probably also important that I was interested in topics outside science – English language and literature and other languages especially, as literacy is a key aspect of being an effective patent attorney.
I did a DPhil and a post-doc – these were not perhaps so essential, although I do think that it helps me as a patent attorney that I understand a little of what it is like to do actual research. In the long term, the most important thing about the post-doc was probably that it was in Japan, so I learned Japanese. Many people enter the patent attorney profession after an undergraduate degree.
How does chemistry inform my work?
It is there all the way through – in particular the nomenclature aspects – you cannot claim a class of compounds if you don’t know how to name them correctly. It was probably teaching 1st year organic chemistry to biochemistry undergraduates that really hammered nomenclature into my head. I rely on the inventors most of the time for the detailed technical input, but I have to have the general background knowledge to understand this.
Being in private practice (rather than working in-house in a particular company) I get a lot of variety in the technical fields that I work in, and I really love that. My main reason for moving away from the research path was the monotony.
Finally an anecdote
My entry into the patent world was by a series of accidents. I heard about it when I was a teenager when my mother had an idea (a heater for the windscreen wiper reservoir to prevent freezing) and consulted a patent attorney about it. I mentioned that I was interested in the patent attorney career to a student doing a DPhil in the same lab as me when he was planning to enter the profession, and when he left his job to emigrate, he contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in the vacancy. A partner was visiting Japan where I was doing my post-doc at the time, and the job was then mine! People nowadays are a bit more methodical about it all, I think.
October 8, 2012 by IPAlchemist
As I mention on the Chemistry page, I have been a member of the RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) since I returned from Japan after my post-doc. My engagement with the Society has not always, I have to admit, been as extensive as I would like. This is something that I have been seeking to address over the last year or so.
Recently, there were a couple of great lectures in the evening at the RSC’s lovely centre at Burlington House on Piccadilly (just next to the Royal Academy of Arts) as part of a series “Chemistry for Tomorrow’s World 2012″. Each was telling the story of the development of one chemical – a pharmaceutical and a plant fungicide respectively.
The first talk was by Professor Johann de Bono, of the Institute of Cancer Research. Professor de Bono is a clinician, who was responsible for the clinical trials and development of abiraterone acetate, which is a drug for the treatment of prostate cancer. He spoke about the collaboration that resulted in the development of abiraterone. The drug works by inhibiting the synthesis of sex hormones, which are required for the advance of the cancer – by inhibition of the synthesis of the hormones, the cancer is controlled. In particular, abiraterone specifically and irreversibly blocks an enzyme called CYP17. The achievement of abiraterone required both a better understanding of the disease of prostate cancer itself, as well as the creation of new active hormone analogues. The session also considered the role of collaboration between industry and academic researchers, with a panel session including Dr Duncan Holmes of GSK and Professor Simon Ward of the University of Sussex.
The second talk was by Dr John Clough of Syngenta, and concerned the development of Azoxystrobin, the world’s leading agricultural fungicide. Azoxystrobin is a synthetic compound, inspired by the structure and activity of the natural product strobilurin A. This talk, in addition to some fascinating chemistry, had an interesting patent angle – research was taking place along similar lines in different companies, and there was a race to the patent office in respect of the first family of compounds developed, with the losers then developing a different pharmacophore in order to circumvent the earlier-filed patent. There was also discussion of the problem of the development of resistance in some fungi – the solution is simply to rotate crops, and/or apply fungicides in combination.
These talks were gratifying to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I can remember being told right back when I was a chemistry student at Oxford that chemistry was going to be supplanted by biotech-based approaches. Both of these stories illustrated that the death of chemistry has been greatly exaggerated, and I was struck by how “chemical” both abiraterone and azoxystrobin are. The era of intervention with small molecules is far from over. And secondly, the stories showed the power of what can be achieved by such intervention. And finally, the role of patents also featured in the narrative.
On the other hand I was, and remain, worried. Firstly, the monolithic research laboratories of the traditional chemical companies (both agrochemical and pharmaceutical) are being dismantled. Will bright young students continue to be attracted into chemistry if they don’t see chemical jobs at the end of it? Small start-up and spinout companies will be practically invisible to teenagers, whereas the large pharmaceutical companies were highly visible. Even though most chemistry students eventually do not pursue chemical research, and this has been so for a very long time, the decline in the idea that this option is available will, I fear, inevitably decrease the attraction of the subject. If we are not careful, we risk a cycle of decreased job opportunities resulting in decreasing study of the subject, resulting in a lowering of the quality of the entrants to the subject and hence the graduates, which will cause what research is being conducted to move elsewhere, resulting in decreased job opportunities. And so a worrying downward spiral seems a real possibility.
Secondly, what was presented in these two sessions is hugely at odds with the public perception of chemistry. I saw stories of chemicals being used to treat life-threatening diseases, and increase agricultural production (at a time when we need to use all available agricultural resources as effectively as possible if the world is to be fed). And yet popularly “chemical” is synonymous with “toxic”, “chemical company” has negative overtones, and “natural” (whatever that means) is associated with benign efficacy.
Work on the public perception of science is being done by many individuals and organisations. Nevertheless, the popular press seems unable to engage with the scientific method, and while some areas of science are experiencing a renaissance – astronomy, cosmology, and particle physics, for example, the image of chemistry remains as bad as ever, as far as I can see. Through the RSC, I hope that more can be done.
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October 7, 2012 by IPAlchemist
I have been spending the last couple of weeks involved in the transfer of my blog from its old home at ipgeek.info to its current location, hence the lack of posts for a little while.
However, these weeks have been eventful ones, and I hope to post in due course about what has been going on.
Starting with last week, where I have been visiting friends in Germany.
Thorsten Volk was a post-doc with me in Japan in the laboratories of Professor Mikami at the Tokyo Institute of Techmology, and I have been well overdue a visit to him and his wife Michaela, and two sons Nico and Corin. So last week I went to visit them in their home in the lovely town of Alsbach (not far from Frankfurt). It is a pretty town nestled in hills, with an old castle at the top, and very picturesque.
Thorsten works for BASF in Ludwigshafen. On Thursday I got to visit – a great joy for a chemist to see an amazing plant in action. The site at Ludwigshafen is the size of a town, snuggled up to the Rhine (opposite Mannheim), and is entirely given over to chemical plants, making all kinds of things. There is cracking of natural gas, and then elaboration of the products into a huge variety of chemicals.
Thorsten’s plant, just one tiny part of the whole, is the size of several blocks, and makes butanediol, which is the raw material for a vast array of useful products, including the solvent THF and the plastic poly-THF. We got to poke around in various bits of it – a fascinating collection of reactors, columns, towers and separators, all connected by walkways, like a giant meccano set. From the walkway at the vertigo-inducing top of the tallest column, you can see the whole site spread out before you on all sides.
The site is not as big as Jurong Island in Singapore, where I have also had the pleasure to visit, but I got to see a lot more of it. In both cases, naturally, pictures are not permitted, so I can’t show you how wonderful it was – you will have to take my word for it, or visit yourself!
In the afternoon I briefly visited Heidelberg. I have visited once before when I was inter-railing when I was 19, but that was a long time ago. I was unlucky with the weather, as it rained most of the afternoon, and I didn’t have a lot of time, so I went to the castle and spent most of the time looking at the Pharmacy Museum which is inside the castle. This seemed appropriate enough for a chemist. The museum is not enormous, about 10 rooms, but they have rescued 18th and 19th century pharmacy interiors from various towns and monasteries, which are absolutely gorgeous, as well as the assorted jars, vials, and cases that medicaments were kept in, and the tools and apparatus used to crush, grind, process, and extract the various materials. And there is one room with example of traditional medicaments – herbs, animal parts, and minerals. After that, I just had time to take a quick peek at the Heilige Geist Kirche and the Old Bridge, before calling it a day.
The previous day was the German holiday celebrating the reunification (3 October). This was the main reason for this timing of the trip. So we had a family outing to the Felsenmeer at Reichenbach. A felsenmeer is a bunch of boulders gathered up and then deposited by a glacier as it melts. So what you see is a huge procession of enormous stones. In the case of the one at Reichenbach, the stones are granite. This did not escape the attention of the Romans, who used it as a source of pre-quarried stone. In some cases, they started working on the stones, but did not eventually extract them, and so you can see the half-finished pieces with the ancient tool marks. I am posting a few pictures on a separate post – examples of the part-worked stones are the Column and the Sarcophagus.