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Scientific Recommendations Abound as Obama Administration Takes Over

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In the weeks leading up to last month's inauguration of Barack Obama as the new US president, scientists and committees alike took the opportunity to pitch in their two cents.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which late last year issued a set of recommendations on how to improve university-industry research partnerships to promote an "innovation ecosystem" in the US, said it was preparing a similar document for the Obama administration. Among its findings, the report includes statistics showing that universities represent the primary engine for discovery research that can lead to innovation, and that the federal government is the primary source of funding for such research.

That report states that the economic and regulatory environments in the US require significant long-term changes, such as modifications to the R&D tax credit; urges the government to develop guidance documents on intellectual property and technology-transfer practices; and seeks changes to federal tax-exempt policies that it claims hinder industry-supported research on university campuses. The report also encourages the government to support a model of open collaboration between industry and academia; to formalize and enhance connection points between the private and public sectors; and to develop tools and metrics to better measure the results of research partnerships.

Another group, this one the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health, and Society, announced plans to release a draft report on policy options for gene patenting and to open a public comment phase this month as the new presidential administration settles in.
The committee said that after comments and revisions it plans to have a final report in October 2009 to pass on to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, expected to be Tom Daschle.

SACGHS's gene-patenting task force so far has focused on divining the positive and negative effects of current gene patenting and licensing practices, and it has covered gene patents for diagnostic, predictive, and other clinical purposes, as well as the effects on translational research. For now, says committee chair James Evans, the task force came up with a range of possible policy recommendations to consider developing and passing on to the secretary.

SACGHS developed the recommendations by commissioning a series of case studies to be conducted by Duke University's Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy. The center reviewed and analyzed a number of case samples, including those relating to BRCA1 and BRCA2 for hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, as well as tests for Alzheimer's disease, hearing loss, Tay-Sachs and Canavan diseases, Long QT syndrome, and other diseases. From this range of studies, the panel drew a number of preliminary conclusions. The case studies suggest that the use and enforcement of IP rights, and not so much whether a gene is patented or unpatented, could potentially create barriers to clinical use of the gene.

Meanwhile, the Obama camp's choices for scientific advisors seemed to encourage the scientific community. Eric Lander and Harold Varmus were named as co-chairs for the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which an analyst for Leerink Swann interpreted as a sign that the incoming administration "continues to take steps favorable to improved NIH funding, particularly for genomics-based research." Former AAAS presidents John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco were also named to key advisory roles. "It's time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America's place as the world leader in science and technology," Obama said in a statement.

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