Should I start patenting the cDNAs I’ve made in the lab?

In a unanimous decision today, the SCOTUS struck down patents for genes by ruling against Myriad Genetics in Association for Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics. The Court, however, did leave some wiggle room for companies to patent cDNAs, or complementary DNA.

“In Myriad, the high court held cDNA is patentable, because it involves actual work in the laboratory and inverts the normal process found in nature. The synthetic DNA is an edited version of a gene, stripped of non-coding regions that the court said makes it “not naturally occurring.”

Critics say even the edited sequences are directly analogous to naturally occurring DNA.”

In many labs, cDNAs are routinely made, manipulated, and used for research. cDNA is DNA that is engineered in reverse using messenger RNA (mRNA) as the template. As the above quote alludes, a cDNA is not a carbon copy of its corresponding gene. Interspersed along the length of a gene are regions of non-coding DNA sequence. These are segments of DNA that aren’t represented in the sequence of the encoded protein. When a gene is initially transcribed into mRNA some of these non-coding regions, called introns, are included. Introns, however, are ultimately removed by the cell before the mRNA is translated into protein. Since mRNA is used to make cDNA, the introns are excluded from the cDNA sequence.

gene expression
During gene expression, a gene is first transcribed into a primary RNA transcript, which includes non-coding introns (blue). Through a process called splicing the introns are removed from the transcript resulting in a mature mRNA molecule. The sequences found in mRNA are called exons (red and yellow). The mRNA is  then translated into protein. Since cDNA is made from mature mRNA, it will consist only of exon sequences.

Although gene and cDNA are different, they both carry essentially the same DNA sequence for a protein. (It should be noted, however, that many genes encode multiple forms of a protein, for which each form has its own corresponding cDNA.) So, I’m not sure why the “patentable” emphasis is on cDNAs as opposed to making mutations* to the underlying sequence that result in say, new or altered function of a protein. At least there I could see an inventive process happening–or am I missing something here?

*I’m talking about generating novel mutations. Of course, I’m not sure what should happen if said mutations are discovered to be “naturally occurring” after the fact.

Related Reading:

Patents on Nature



Crossposted at Scientopia

Communicating Science in My Native Tongue

Several months ago Drug Monkey asked me this:

@amasianv do you blog in Vietnamese? Could be a cool thing, no?

— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) September 9, 2012

Communicating science is tough as it is, never mind doing it in my native tongue. Especially, as I’m embarrassed to admit, when my spoken Vietnamese is atrophying like a disused muscle and my written skills are, well, nothing to write home about.

One of the reasons I started science blogging was a compromise to my father. In the minds of many Vietnamese immigrant parents–this probably extends to other ethnic groups as well–only four career options exist for their children: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or garbage man. No disrespect intended toward my fellow waste collectors, but this is the view of many of our parents. However, my father’s dreams for me went a little against the grain since he wanted me to be a journalist. You can only begin to imagine how perplexing it was for me that my dad was disappointed in my affinity for the sciences. Of course, while blogging was an attempt at finding middle ground with my dad, the central irony in all of this is that my writing isn’t really geared towards him. His English is only a hair better than my Vietnamese. Now, that’s not to say we don’t talk science at all. In fact, many of our conversations range from science news he’s read on Vietnamese-language websites–some of which require elaboration if not outright debunking–to the details of my own thesis project.

Our conversations, however, can be a maddeningly staccato, mish-mash of Vienglish (I know, it lacks that certain yo no sé qué of “Spanglish”), with me attached to either my phone or computer ready to consult Google translate and my dad with his four hardcover Vietnamese-English dictionaries open and ready at his fingertips. But despite this, talking about science is one of the more rewarding experiences I get to share with my dad. For one thing, I practice using simpler analogies and try to find culturally-relevant examples to get around the language barrier. Recently, for instance, while on the topic of fermentation we talked about my dad’s perfected recipe for making dưa chua*, a Vietnamese specialty of pickled mustard greens.


Even more rewarding than honing my own communication skills, however, is being able to witness my father’s inquisitive mind at work. We’re talking about someone whose formal education ended somewhere in grade school. His questions and insights from our countless conversations tell me that the limit of one’s curiosity isn’t set by their level of education.

As for my father, I have to believe he enjoys our scientific conversations, as well. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be making cheat sheets like this one:

cheat sheet

*not my dad’s recipe.

Crossposted from Scientopia.

Don’t forget to bỏ phiếu in tomorrow’s bầu cử

If the goal is to raise awareness, then sometimes piquing people’s curiosity is most effective. For the past few days I’ve been wearing these pins that say, “Bầu Cử” and people have been asking me what it means. Translated from Vietnamese it means “election,” although the makers of the pin were going for “vote,”in which case “bỏ phiếu” would have been a better translation–no biggie, the sentiment is still there. These pledge pins were sent to me by 18 Million Rising, a get out the vote campaign aimed at the approximately 18 million Asian American electorate:

Asian American Electorate Infographic (source).

They also sent out flyers, which I couldn’t help but modify, as part of a photo stream project:

This post, however, isn’t solely directed at my Asian American brothers and sisters. And neither is it just a reminder for everyone to go out and vote tomorrow. You see, Amasian Dad and I have been engaged in a 12-year political debate. I am a “default” Democrat, whereas he is a lifelong* Republican. I have learned from my dad that traumatic experiences have a way of profoundly impacting political views. He lost his country to communism, so it’s unsurprising that he aligned himself the most “anti-red” platform (my less politically-active Amasian Mom, on the other hand, is what I like to call a RIMO: Republican in marriage only). Needless to say, the differences in our political leanings have been the root of many spirited discussions.

For the past 4 elections, my dad and I have had a tradition of talking to each other the morning before Election Day. It’s a last ditch effort to convince each other to switch votes under the guise of “reminding” each other to vote. Earlier polling suggested that Amasian Dad was actually leaning Obama, but I was doubtful. He was leaning that way in 2008, but in the end he “pulled the lever” for McCain (in actuality, he connected the line for McCain). So, I was surprised by how he greeted me on the phone this morning.

“I’m voting for Obama,” he said in decisive Vietnamese over the phone, before I could finish asking him who he would be voting for. I asked him why and we talked for a bit about his reasons: Medicare, tax policy, our economy vis-a-vis China’s (my dad has a bit of a protectionist streak in him)–the usual campaign rhetoric and talking points. Eventually, we got to talking about federal funding for science and basic research–toward which I admittedly steered the conversation. We touched on how while Obama hasn’t been able to do too much to increase funding, Romney’s plans to cut discretionary spending would include cuts to investments in science and research. As a graduate student considering post-doctoral training, I am a special interest here as funding for both is heavily reliant on federal funds. Toward the end of our conversation my dad reassured me, “If I had been waffling at all on my vote for Obama, this conversation has cemented my choice. 100%.” We hung up and I left for lab feeling strange, but comforted, that my dad and I were in agreement for once.

*as an American citizen that is

Related reading:
On Romney, Obama and U.S. Investments in Science
A vote for science
How my dad saved high school biology

How my dad saved high school biology

It really came as no surprise when my 9th grade high school biology teacher told me that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year. The high school I attended was a chronically underperforming and severely underfunded school situated in the densely-populated, square-mile city of Central Falls, RI–an impoverished, inner-city community with a largely immigrant population. And if you were wondering, yes, it’s that Central Falls–the city that infamously tried to fire all of its high school teachers and shortly, thereafter declared bankruptcy (although, it has since rehired most of the teachers and exited bankruptcy). So I was pretty sure the reason we wouldn’t be doing experiments that year was due to a shortfall in the school budget.

Central Falls High School

The prospect of not doing experiments however, was still a disappointment to me. Especially considering that a classmate and I had spent the beginning of the school year petitioning the administration to let us take biology instead of the general science class outlined in the normal 9th grade curriculum. We’d already taken general science during the previous two years in junior high and I had grown tired of learning the different types of clouds and classes of rocks. No offense to meteorologists and geologists, but it was time for me to move on to what I thought were the “big leagues.” I wanted to do more hands-on experiments like dissecting frogs, looking at cells under a microscope, or wiping bacteria off of door handles and growing them on petri dishes. These were, at least, what 14 year-old me thought constituted a science experiment–before I knew that these were really called “labs.” And so, after petitioning the school and obtaining approval to take biology, what was the obstacle to making my dreams of experiments a reality, you ask? There wasn’t enough money in the school budget for latex gloves.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only bit of bad news in my life back then. Right around the same time, my dad lost his job at a local medical supply manufacturer, after they had decided to move their operation to Mexico (perhaps a casualty of NAFTA and what not). They were “kind” enough, however, to offer their former employees a “severance” package–their choice of the surplus medical supplies left behind in the move. According to my dad, there were boxes upon boxes full of gauze, bandages, medical tape, cotton swabs, and other supplies available for the taking. When I told my dad the disappointing news that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year because the class didn’t have latex gloves, my father smiled. Completely out of coincidence–unaware as he was to the plight of my biology class– my father had decided to take home nearly a palette’s worth of cases of latex gloves.

I remember the day my dad delivered the latex gloves to my biology class. Since my dad was never much the sort to draw attention to himself and because he didn’t want disrupt class, he waited until after the school day was over. I met my dad by the door nearest our biology classroom and helped him carry the cases of gloves into the building. We knocked on the door to the class and when my bio teacher answered, I explained to him that my dad had some things he wanted to donate. I could see my teacher’s eyes light up when his gaze fell on the large, cardboard cases labeled “Medical Exam Gloves” of assorted sizes. He was speechless for a brief moment as my dad and I pushed boxes into the classroom. And when he fully realized what was happening he grasped my father’s hand and started shaking it. He thanked my father profusely and told him how much this meant. I stood between them, translating in Vietnamese the extent of my teacher’s appreciation for my father’s generosity. My dad tried to wave it off as though it were no big deal, but I knew it was. Just days prior, my dad had suffered the indignity of losing his job, but on that day, my dad was a hero– a hero at a time when he really needed to feel like one. He needed this moment as much as we need those gloves.

I left Central Falls High School the following year after accepting an opportunity to attend a private school that I couldn’t turn down. But I never forgot about CF High. I came back often to visit the school and, in parpticular, my biology teacher. For my high school community service project I helped out as his teacher’s aide during the first semester of my junior year. Even when I went off to college, I made an effort to see my biology teacher whenever I was home on break. And during each visit he’d remind me of how grateful he was for what my father did. Sadly, I can remember seeing those same cases of gloves sitting in the back storage room–the number of smaller boxes inside dwindling with each passing year.

Several years ago, my 9th grade biology teacher retired and I haven’t been back to the school since for a visit, so to when those gloves finally ran out, I wouldn’t know. But the fact that he was frugally rationing them out over the course of many years really stuck with me. And the sad reality is that underfunded schools, unfortunately, is not specific to the city I grew up in. It’s a problem that is faced by a number of inner-city and rural schools across the country–a problem exacerbated by the financial tumult of the past few years.

Since 2006, however, a select group of science bloggers have been raising money through the online charity DonorsChoose to help fund many science education-related projects submitted by teachers in underfunded schools. Going through their giving pages and reading the projects submitted by teachers really drove home for me just how underfunded some schools are. Projects from requesting money to purchase new stools to securing supplies for frog and organ dissections to, you guessed it, latex gloves. If you’d like to contribute, here’s your chance to capture the spirit of my dad and help save science education for students in need–but you’ll need to act fast because fundraising ends on Nov. 5th November 9th (there is also a match in effect of up to $100 if you enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” box).

Here are the giving pages for Science Bloggers for Students and also projects submitted by Central Falls teachers (not exclusively science-related).

Experimental Ethics

by Youssef Rizk, Esq.

While doing some reading online during the work day, I came across an article about a recently FDA approved experiment that would attempt to develop a treatment for autism using stem cells collected from the child’s umbilical cord blood (“cord blood”) at birth. Quickly summarized, the experiment intends to locate children with autism that do not exhibit any obvious genetic pre-disposition for the disease, such as a hereditary history.  The experiment also attempts to rule out people with head injuries or other trauma that may have caused autism.  The study intends to focus on children with autism that developed the disease from factors like the environment or exposure to infection (perhaps easier said than done when it comes to filtering out candidates, but that’s their problem to figure out).

What really interested me about the article was one particular paragraph that read:

“Using the child’s own cord blood will make the study safe and ethical – plus, the cells are younger and have not been exposed to environmental factors, like viruses or chemicals, which can alter the cell’s function and structure. By using the children’s own stem cells, their bodies cannot reject them.”

The article suggests that using the children’s cord blood to gather stem cells is ethically sound in light of how divisive stem cell research is in society. The objections are mainly against human embryonic stem cells and the research performed using them, which is an objection closely linked to the abortion debate (and I am conveniently going to steer clear of that debate). Objections, which prompted President Bush to limit embryonic research and which President Obama reversed during his presidency. Nonetheless, using one’s own cord blood for stem cell research arguably avoids any ethical issues. It is simply blood kept for the original host’s use at a later time and does not rely on stem cells from other sources.

Intentional or not (and I’m assuming intentional), this experiment is designed in a way that avoids the stem cell research controversy. The decision to use the cord blood of the patients themselves is an admittedly smart way of going about obtaining stem cells because that also ensures that the patient will not reject those cells. It also happens to avoid the ethical debate, thus rendering the experiment with less opposition (if any) and easier to approve by the FDA.

One could argue that true/pure science should not be at the mercy of public opinion and that an experiment should remain unbiased by such opinions. The idea that allowing public opinion into science, corrupts pure scientific research could in fact have some truth (see the old “Cigarettes are good for you” ads like this one:  

Nonetheless, we don’t live in a world where scientists can do whatever they want. Politics are everywhere from the highest reaches of the government to the struggle between competing lab-mates working on similar experiments. Scientists that seek to excel have no choice, but to play society’s games in order to keep progressing in their fields. Scientists often need to be liked as well as distinguished, especially when much of the funding for scientific fields comes from non-scientific sources. David H. Guston of Rutgers University calls it the principal-agent theory.

I thought about political influence on science when I read about the FDA approved autism experiment. Did the scientists consider potential societal objections to their work in such a controversial field? Did that consideration have a factor in the design of their experiment and in seeking FDA approval? Taking into account the fact that the laws of a nation can severely limit or open up scientific research, a good scientist would seem to have to take political factors into considerations for not only experiments, but for grants, and reputation. A scientist that knows how to “play the game” may be the scientist that has the best chance of advancing science.

I find this type of balancing act fascinating because unless a scientist goes off into international waters and funds his/her own research, there is always an influence of public opinion weighing in on the advancement goals of science. Does that influence merely dictate what fields scientists pursue or does it in fact dictate the course of experiments as well? The brief point made in the article about the experiment with autism and stem cells seems to illustrate just one example of where science as well as law/politics meet to discuss ethics.

“What are you going to do after you get your PhD?”

It’s a question familiar to every PhD student, ranking up there with “When will you finish?”, and if you’re lucky enough to be in biology: “Are you working on a cure for cancer?” As a PhD student entering the twilight of my graduate school career, I have been thinking more and more about what I want to do next. Whether it be a post-doc in academia, industry, or a complete change of pace such as work in science communication or policy, the prospects of a new project in a new setting can be exciting. Other times, the uncertainty turns my stomach over with anxiety.

After reading U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there, Sunday felt more like the latter. The article fingers a confluence of factors contributing to the lack of STEM jobs, in particular for biology and chemistry PhDs. These include: a scarcity of traditional academic jobs, an overproduction of PhDs from 2003-2007, stagnant federal spending on research spending, and significant job contraction in the pharmaceutical industry. Put simply, the PhD bubble burst and now there aren’t enough jobs to go around. And as if the article isn’t disheartening enough, it ends with a woman discouraging her daughter from pursuing science–so much for efforts in encouraging women in STEM.

What, then, is a newly minted PhD to do? Some find themselves working jobs for which they did not specifically train, such as an academic administrator. One emerging profession, called a knowledge broker, is also something to consider. Others might take different routes into science writing and communication. But as David Kroll points out, “Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers.” Not particularly encouraging news, considering how I started blogging to try my hand at writing.

Or perhaps we should be taking a cue from our more math-inclined brethren. Physics and astronomy PhD’s seem to be the exemption to this trend and are finding jobs in a variety of fields and industries. This is probably because, as Julianne Dalcanton explains, “a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy.” Take home message: obtain a skill set that is marketable and applicable to many different jobs. 

Or maybe we should keep things in perspective. As the article points out, the unemployment rate for chemistry PhD’s is around 4.6, while physics and astronomy is even lower at 1-2. No numbers were provided for biology PhD’s, but I suspect its lower than the national average. Razib Khan writes, “Consider that the woman who seems to have “wasted” a neuroscience Ph.D. in yesterday’s Washington Post article now has a job in academic administration. This is the sort of failure that manual laborers and factory workers alike would probably kill for.”

Truthfully, my ideal job would be some combination of what I currently do. I enjoy doing research, but I’d also like to devote some of my time towards education outreach programs like the one I’ve been involved with during grad school called ARISE. And I would also like to continue writing and blogging about science. The trick now is to find said job. And make sure it pays beaucoup bucks.

Related Reading:

More thoughts on the Washington Post article from Chemjobber

The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps (The article refers to the woman with a PhD as Ms. Apparently, once you go food stamps you lose your honorific.)

Urging our Senators to Support NIH Funding: Does it Work?

Last night, before leaving lab I received this email:

Urge Your Senators to Support for $32 Billion for NIH in FY 2013

Dear Colleague,
The Senate Appropriations Committees will soon consider the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) bill that will provide fiscal year (FY) 2013 funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). FASEB is urging Congress to increase the NIH budget to $32 billion in FY 2013 as the first step of a program of sustained growth that will keep pace with the increasing scientific opportunities, continue our progress in improved heath, and foster economic competitiveness. We need your help to ensure that your Senators hear from the research community about why it is important to provide $32 billion for NIH in 2013!
Please go to to email your Senators today to urge them to support $32 billion for NIH in the FY 2013 LHHS Appropriations bill. Together, we can make a difference for science!
Joseph C. LaManna, PhD
FASEB President

Normally, I fill these out without question, but after clicking the link I wondered whether I was just preaching to the choir. Being from RI, I know that funding the NIH and research in general has the support of my representatives and senators. In a few days I’m sure that I will receive a canned response from Sen. Reed and Sen. Whitehouse pledging their support.

So how effective is it? Has letter writing ever changed the minds of senators who oppose research funding increases? Or do they just picture this when they receive these emails:

Has anyone ever received a reply from a senator expressing why they oppose research funding or why they’ve changed their minds and now support it? If so, I’d love to hear your story. Better yet, if you responses from your senator please share and I’ll attach it to this post.

UPDATE 6.15.12

As anticipated, Senator Reed has responded with a letter expressing his support for NIH Funding: (bold mine)

Dear Mr. Le:
     Thank you for contacting me regarding federal support for medical research.  I appreciate hearing from you.
     To further our understanding of diseases and conditions and improve our nation’s health, I have consistently supported the work of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the leading federal agency for medical research in the United States, as well as public health programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Scientific research, coupled with greater public education and awareness, has produced significant results with respect to disease rates in this country.
     The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, which I supported and was signed into law on December 23, 2011, provides over $30 billion to the NIH and $6 billion to the CDC.  You may be interested to learn that I recently joined a number of my colleagues in sending a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of biomedical research funding for the NIH in FY13.  For your review, I have enclosed a copy of this letter.
     It is my hope that strong federal support for medical research will continue to advance our knowledge of diseases, genetic disorders, and chronic conditions.  You can be assured that I will keep your thoughts in mind as I continue to support robust federal investment in medical research.
     Again, thank you for contacting me, and please do not hesitate to write, call, or visit my website,, in the future for information regarding this or any other matter.
Jack Reed
United States Senator

Here’s a copy of the letter to the Approriations Committee: FY13 NIH support

I think the statement, “As NIH grants get more competitive, researchers can easily spend half their careers working before receiving a grant, resulting in promising, talented young researchers being discouraged from biomedical research and some young investigators deciding to abandon scientific research altogether or to conduct their research outside the United States,” will resonate with most of my peers.

Carl Zimmer comes to Brown and schools me in the art science writing.

     When it came to science writing, I made a gross miscalculation. Two months ago, the idea of of science blogging came with the naive notion that it would be easy. I assumed that I would be effortlessly writing about endless topics. It wouldn’t take long before I found myself humbled by the quality of writing by other science writers or paralyzed by writer’s block. My confidence inevitably gave way to doubt.

     So I was understandably excited earlier this month when I discovered* that Carl Zimmer was coming to Brown to share his experiences as a science writer in a lecture titled, Viruses and Whales: Adventures in Science Writing. I was doubly excited when I caught wind that there would be an open discussion for students and postdocs to meet with Carl Zimmer before his talk. For those of you who don’t know, Carl Zimmer is a popular science writer and blogger who has been described “as fine a science essayist as we have” by The New York Times Book Review. He is the author of 12 science books, an essayist for Discover and The New York Times, and a frequent guest on the radio programs Radio Lab and This American Life. For any aspiring science writer trying to find both voice and audience, this was an excellent opportunity to pick the brain and learn from one of the best.

     To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this open discussion. My friend and I arrived at the conference room a little bit on the early side and felt too awkward to be the first ones to enter while Carl Zimmer was working on what appeared to be his talk for later that evening. Slowly but surely students started to trickle in and we took our seats. After a round of introductions, what followed was a candid and enlightening, informal discussion on popular science writing.

     When asked whether journalists should read or understand the research papers they write about (a topic explored by Alice Bell and James Randerson), he explained that he always goes to the primary literature and refers to experts in the field to fill in the gaps of his understanding. Characterizing the journalistic argument against having to read research papers, Carl quipped, “I find the argument lame.” Having sound understanding of the research you are writing about is important, particularly because, as Carl noted, news about a scientific discovery traveling from a research lab, to university press release, to print media and finally to the public can be like a game of telephone. At each stop the discovery gets a little bit more sensationalized. He also went onto say that certain constraints however, such as deadlines, would dictate the length and depth that a journalist could delve into a particular research paper.

     And just when I thought I had an encouraging leg up on journalists given my scientific training, Carl swoops in to crush that notion by pointing out that the years scientists spend on Ph.D and postdoctoral training, writers devote to honing their craft. Scientists are handicapped because the style of writing used in grants and research papers are highly inaccessible, jargon heavy, and written, much to the disgust of Carl, in passive voice–made clear by the fact that when he uttered the word “passive” it was accompanied by a pantomime of vomiting. Scientists, because of their nature, also can get bogged down in details, which derails their writing. So for scientists transitioning to popular science writing, not only do we have to retrain ourselves to unlearn “bad” habits, we also have to become good self-editors.

     The most relevant insight Carl shared that afternoon, however, dealt with story selection. The largest obstacle and primary source of writing paralysis for me is deciding on a topic to write about. I’ve spent many hours either staring at a blank document trying to figure out a different and fresh angle on a much-covered scientific discovery or surfing through countless websites and Google searches for a potentially interesting but overlooked story. This is the most challenging aspect of science writing for me because on one hand I don’t want to write about something everyone else is writing about and on the other hand overlooked stories are probably overlooked for a reason–they’re just not that interesting to a wider audience. So how does one decide? The answer in part, explains Carl, depends on where you work. If you’re working in-house for a magazine or newspaper than you have to be versatile enough to cover a wide range of topics since many of them will be assigned. You have much more flexibility as a freelancer and can write about the more obscure stories but then the burden is on you to prove that you are an expert. If you’re a blogger, then that onus is even greater–you’ve got to use your blog well and be sure to make a point. Regardless of whether your in-house, freelancing or blogging  you have to find a balance between engaging and informing your audience. While not all scientific discoveries or topics will have mass appeal, great science writers can make the public care by identifying the point they are trying to get across and weave all the relevant information into an overarching narrative or compelling story.

     I wish I could say that I left Carl Zimmer’s office hours feeling inspired. But the reality was that I felt overwhelmed. Maybe it was the fact that I had a thesis committee meeting right after the open discussion, but more likely it was because I realized that the amount of work that goes into being a good science writer was daunting. For some, writing is effortless. For me it requires work. Later that night, after Carl’s talk, I reflected on the advice and insight he shared. One thing he said stuck out. “Emulate good writers,” he advised. Luckily for me, Carl has published 12 books and countless essays for me to use as source material. That night I cracked open my girlfriend’s copy of Parasite Rex and got to work…

* For those of you who are still reluctant to join Twitter and complained that this event was not well advertised: I found out about this event from my Twitter feed.

Related Reading

You can read live tweets of Carl’s talk here.

Check out Katie PhD’s post and artful sketchnote of Carl’s visit and talk:

Probing the Passions of Science: An Interview with Carl Zimmer on the Art of Science Writing

A voyage of discovery: how the best science writers keep you enthralled

Image Credits:

Patents On Nature

by Youssef Rizk, Esq.

     Most people are aware that having a patent on an invention, process, or business method is a powerful benefit granted by the government that creates an exclusive right of use to the inventor. Translation: “My idea, not yours! Hands off!”  What people often forget, however, is that in exchange for that right, the government insists that all of the details surrounding the patentable material are revealed to the public.  This requirement is an attempt to balance the individual’s right against the rights of the general public.  It encourages new invention, but promises that eventually those new inventions will become accessible to the public domain (often after 20 years).

     The requirements for obtaining a patent, which reflect the intent of the government to reward invention, but then to have the invention benefit the public interest are that:

1. The invention must be patentable (i.e. fall under the statutory definition of what is patentable

2. The invention must be new/novel (i.e. does not exist prior to the patent process);

3. The invention must be useful; (i.e. it needs to have a beneficial function);

4. The invention must be non-obvious (i.e. it should not be something that someone with a similar set of skills or background could come up with easily); and

5. The invention must be adequately described to the point that someone following the instructions could re-create the invention


     Two recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have shaken things up in the scientific community.  First, there was the decision in the Mayo Collaborative Services, DBAMayo Medical Laboratories, Et al. v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. case where the court denied patents held by Prometheus.  The patents protected a testing “method” used to determine whether or not a person’s body had absorbed too little or too much thiopurine drugs (used to treat autoimmune diseases) by analyzing the metabolites in the blood after ingenstion.  The case concludes (and I am heavily summarizing the legaleze) that Prometheus could not patent a process that simply told doctors to check the levels and then compare those levels to a scale of what is considered too high or too low.  The court determined that there was nothing novel about performing tests that doctors already performed, especially because the metabolites are a naturally occurring phenomena in the human body that result from metabolizing thiopurine drugs (which the drugs themselves have been in existence long before the patent).  The process also did not instruct the doctors to do anything specific.  For example, the (loosely paraphrased) instruction: “Check the levels of the patient’s metabolites,” was not followed with a description of how to do so.  Instead it was left up to the doctor to determine the correct procedure for measuring the metabolites.  This alone does not transform Prometheus’ process into anything patentable because it relies on the doctor’s innate knowledge to check the blood levels and measure them properly.

     In the more recent case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, No. 11-725, the U.S. Supreme Court did not deny the patents, but rather remanded the decision to the Appellate court for reconsideration in light of the Prometheus decision.  Many in the legal community view this sort of thing as essentially a message from the Supreme Court to the Appellate court implying that they change their decision.  Others feel that it may simply be that the Supreme Court needs more to go on after the Appellate Court includes Prometheus in its analysis.  Regardless, the decision has many in an uproar. 

     For starters, in the Myriad case, the issue mainly concerns actual physical materials that Myriad patented rather than a process like that in Prometheus.  Myriad’s patents are for genes found in human DNA that when examined for mutations can indicate whether or not a woman is at high risk for breast or ovarian cancer.  Some argue that the Appellate court need not consider the Prometheus case because it simply has to do with a process that was poorly defined whereas Myriad has patents on actual physical materials.  In opposition to that reasoning some argue that the Supreme Court intends the Appellate Court to analyze the decision not in terms of the patented subjects, but in terms of whether or not one can patent a natural phenomena.

     DNA is something that occurs in nature.  Patenting genes in DNA could be akin to patenting an organ found in a newly discovered insect or the liquid form of oxygen, which does not exist on Earth naturally, but is a form of a natural element.  Simply put, these physical things cannot belong to any one person because no person created them.  However, a unique process for using the new insect organ or creating liquid oxygen could be patentable (In Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U. S. 175, 185, the Supreme Court found that a mathematical formula itself was not patentable, but a unique process that used the formula was.).  What complicates the matter is that Myriad claims that the mutations when analyzed outside the body are a new and transformative creation different from what occurs naturally.  Further (and this is where Prometheus may apply more strongly), Myriad purports to have a process for determining whether or not the genes carry a mutation.  The question is whether Myriad’s process to “determine if there is a mutation” is specific enough or whether it is as general as that in Prometheus.

     Many bio companies consider these U.S. Supreme Court decisions detriments that create disincentives for companies or inventors to continue with their research when there is potentially no patent reward.  Others consider the decisions a win for the scientific community in general because restricting access to naturally occurring phenomena or obvious diagnostic testing would impede scientific progress more greatly.  The courts must consider striking a balance between the openness that benefits communal knowledge and the individual protections that reward ingenuity.  Until we see how the Appellate court further analyzes the Myriad case in light of the decision in Prometheus, we will have to wait to see how these decisions ultimately affect scientific research generally and specifically with bio companies in the long run.  

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Gene Patenting: Ethical and Legal Issues

Around the Web Wednesdays 3.21.12

     This is my first installment of Around the Web Wednesdays. Every week I will gather interesting stories from around the worldwideweb to share with you all (drum roll please)…This week we will explore what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, FASEB, and climate change scientists have in common.

Athlete as Academic Advocate

     Uncontent with being just a 6x NBA champion, 6x NBA MVP, and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he of Game of Death and Airplane! fame, has taken on a new mantle: advocate for STEM education. Earlier this month, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visited Dr. Martin Luther King Preparatory High School on Chicago’s South Side stressing that there “are only about 450 jobs in the NBA and some of them are taken, but there are thousands of jobs in science and engineering.” The relative invisibility of black/African-American academic role models when compared to black entertainment and sports celebrities was not lost on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has authored a children’s book titled, What Color is My World: The Lost History of African American Inventors.

Abdul-Jabbar remarked, “If you go to Harlem and talk to the young people there, I would say that over 90 percent of them would either want to be LeBron James or Jay-Z. And they don’t have any idea of what their potential is beyond those two areas (of sports and entertainment). And they see that as the only things available to them.” Being a green-bleeding Celtics fan, I don’t normally heap this much praise on a Laker, but in Kareem’s case he deserves it for both accomplishments on and off the court. Here’s a heartfelt thank you to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

How to be a science advocate

     Earlier this month, as many of you know, I attended the annual Drosophila Research Conference in Chicago. In addition to learning about current research in the field, the conference offers a host of workshops that focus on career development and advocacy. Unfortunately, due to timing I missed the Advocacy Lunch hosted by FASEB‘s Director of Legislative Relations, Jennifer Zeitzer. Luckily for me, Eva Amsen covered the lunch on her blog at the Node. The take home message? Any one, regardless of where they are in the science careers, can become an advocate. Points to keep in mind: Be vocal, Have a clear messageContact politicians and build relationships, & Generate public awareness.

Science advocacy: How far are you willing to go?

     Last month, documents surfaced discrediting the Heartland Institute and its anti-global warming stance. Turns out that Peter Gleick, hydrologist and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, Calif., had assumed a fake identity to get his hands on said documents. In light of this recent revelation, Juliet Eilperin explores the inherent risks associated with the lengths to which scientists will go in the name of advocacy. This quote from Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists just about sums it up, “Integrity is the source of every power and influence we have as scientists. We don’t have the power to make laws, or run the economy.”