by Robert Ennesser
In 1676, Issac Newton wrote to rival researcher Robert Hooke, "[y]ou have added much in several ways, and . . . [i]f I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Scientific and medical innovation occurs when the greatest numbers of researchers are able to use the best materials and methods available to develop new technologies and treatments. Nanotechnology and genetics are two heavily patented areas with promising medical applications. Unlike some current genetics companies that use patents to block researchers from studying their gene and developing new technologies, several recent nanotechnology studies are evidence that scholars across the country are working together and building off of each others' results.
Two recent studies in Nature have illustrated how innovation builds from research findings of multiple groups. Both studies make use of a technique known as "DNA origami" DNA origami is the precise, nanoscale folding of a single strand of DNA on a synthetic scaffold. DNA origami has been used to produce DNA in particular nanoscale structures, shapes, and patterns. In the first study, a group of researchers led by biochemist Milan Stojanovic of Columbia University created molecular "robots" which move on top of a DNA origami pattern. Their robot "spider" is composed of a body and includes 3 legs which interact with a trail created by the researchers on the DNA origami pattern. The body of the spider is made of a streptavidin molecule, a protein often used in biotechnology experiments which can be used to visualize nanoscale structures by attaching a molecule that fluoresces when excited by fluorescent light. In the second study, a team of scientists led by Professor Nadrian Seeman at New York University created a DNA "assembly line" that can create 8 different arrangements of gold particles. Seeman created a tiny robot "walker" composed of single-stranded DNA fragments with three "hands" that pick up and bind cargo and four "feet" that bind to a path on a DNA origami pattern. Professor Seeman is regarded as the creator of DNA nanotechnology and was awarded the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience on June 4th, 2010.
These innovative projects were made possible by scientists applying others' discoveries to their own research. Both studies rely on a DNA origami method invented by Professor Paul Rothemund of the California Institute of Technology. According to an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Rothemund had no part in either study. The California Institute of Technology has applied for a patent on DNA origami, invented by Professor Rothemund. Further, NYU owns a patent on nano-robotics due to the creative efforts of Professor Seeman. If Rothemund and Seeman enforced their patents and blocked research the way some companies have blocked research on genes in our bodies, these studies would not have occurred.
The researchers behind the molecular spiders imagine fantastic medical applications. Senior author Hao Yan of the California Institute of Technology imagines molecular spiders that would carry drugs, walk on the surface of specific cells, and trigger the activation of the drugs. Author Milan Stojanovic of Columbia University believes such robots could eventually be able to build structures or repair damaged tissues. Meaningful scientific discovery requires that current researchers be able to apply the methods of scientists like Seeman, Rothemund, Yan, and Stojanovic to make the next steps. If every laboratory had to wait 20 years or pay huge licensing fees to apply the most current and modern research materials and methods, such studies most likely would not occur. A specific patent statute forbids the enforcement of surgical patents against doctors since surgeons need to use the most modern methods and devices. Research innovation leads to curing diseases, but scientists need to be able to use the most modern, state-of-the-art materials and methods today to help patients tomorrow.