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Can Do-It-Yourself Biology Change Science or Save a Life?

BY Carola Frediani | Friday, December 13 2013

Taking the lab home. (Credit: Z33 art centre, Hasselt/flickr)

They are rebels with a cause, fighting for open science. Each of them do it in their own way. Still, they all have a common goal: to change the way in which science is practiced, the way its results are distributed and even who gets to participate. It’s a loose movement made up of a new breed of scientists such as the Italian veterinary virologist Ilaria Capua, who challenged the World Health Organization’s policies on sharing data. Her story is well-known. In 2005 an outbreak of avian influenza, caused by a mutated strain of the H5N1 virus, hit Vietnam, then China, Africa and finally Europe. There were fears of a possible pandemic when the first deaths caused by bird-to-human transmission of the virus began to appear. In the middle of the crisis, Capua, who was working for an international agency established to fight avian influenza, refused to deposit data related to the sequencing of the avian flu virus into the WHO database because its access was restricted to a few research groups. Instead she urged her colleagues to deposit their data in a public and open access database. In the end, she created a global consortium of scientists who sought to foster international sharing of avian influenza data, and in 2007 the WHO decided to change its policies on sharing data. Capua’s stand was an act of rebellion against institutional science, a victory for open biology and the start of a new type of scientific research enabled by the Internet and ICT tools, through which international cooperation could be reached by online data sharing. And yes, it was a way of hacking biology.

Ilaria Capua (Credit: Fondazione Giannino Bassetti/flickr)

Capua's story is just one of many analyzed in a new book, Biohackers. The Politics of Open Science, that explores the changes brought about by the open science movement in the circulation and ownership of scientific information, as well as the relationship between researchers, scientific institutions and commercial companies. According to its author, Alessandro Delfanti, a postdoctoral fellow at the research hub Media@McGill in Montreal, hacker culture and the free software movement play key roles in this transformation of science, hence why he describes those involved as “biohackers.”

“I used this term to highlight an influence of hacker culture on science," Delfanti told techPresident. "Since that culture is part of a change that is undergoing in life sciences, made of open practices related to science. My point was to choose different cases that still could allow me to show this general transformation, cases in which this remix between hacker culture and scientific culture is at play in different areas and institutions.”

In his book, Delfanti examines three case studies, one of which was Capua’s. But Delfanti also looks at Craig Venter, the US biologist and entrepreneur known for his role in the commercialization of genetics, which makes him seem an odd figure in the biohacking movement. Yet, even the US scientist, who became famous in the 1990s for his role in the race to sequence the first human genome, began challenging the public consortium Human Genome Project (HGP) with his own Celera Genomics and switched to open science practices, both for data sharing and the publishing of scientific papers. In the Sorcerer II project, Venter decided to sail the world’s oceans in order to collect genomics data that, for the first time, would be shared publicly through open access databases. “The open science movement has a transformative potential that can be applied to different things,” says Delfanti. “In Venter’s case it was not used to fight privatization but to find new market niches for different business models: it was open science directed towards profits."

Finally, Biohackers explores the chaotic and fascinating world of DIY (do-it-yourself) biology, which shares the most number of similarities and relationships with hacker culture. “It is citizen science, performed outside the traditional settings such as academic or corporate labs,” explained Delfanti. “It is made of amateurs and hackers who want to experiment biology in different ways, of students in life sciences who want to perform experiments out of the control of their supervisor, of computer scientists and artists interested in exploring new possibilities. The garage biology movement started in the US in the mid-2000s; now you have community labs in around 20 American cities, a dozen in Europe and others in South-East Asia.”

One of the book’s points is that the open practices are not necessarily anti-corporate. There are in fact deep philosophical and political divisions within the broader ‘open’ movement, as much as within the open software movement that influenced it. Nonetheless, this culture gives scientists tools they can use in order to solve some of the political and societal problems raised by the increasing privatization of genetic research; at the same time, it opens up science to the participation of new actors, such as citizen scientists, start-ups and online collaborative platforms. “Openness is so important in our society, it is part of a transformation happening in many fields, from journalism to politics. In science it is not just an ideology to adhere to, but also a powerful tool to solve problems within institutions or in the market,” explains Delfanti.

A blog post on Amplino's website explaining how they turned their shoe box malaria detector into a real product. (Credit: Screenshot of http://www.amplino.org/blog/)

Aside from his book, there are many examples of this mix between hacker culture and the open software and hardware movement, and the birth of a number of startups emerging from the garage biology. One of them is Amplino, a mobile malaria testing device developed by three young Dutch researchers, who were influenced by the DIY bio movement. They built a ‘mobile bio-lab’ that is able to identify asymptomatic malaria sufferers using a sensitive molecular technique. It is more accurate than existing rapid diagnostic tests but less expensive than the machines used to do a real-time diagnosis of malaria. The cheapest among them costs around US$600. They made one device for US$60, even though the final price would probably be around US$250.

How did they manage to do it? “We all have backgrounds in life sciences, but we were not really into electronics,” Amplino co-founder Wouter Bruins, 29, told techPresident. “One day we got together at a kitchen table where we tried Arduino [the open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software]. We started by playing around with it, and then we thought that maybe we could build something with it like a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) device, a type of machine used to diagnose all kinds of stuff.” So they built their first prototype in a shoebox and then decided to use it to target malaria. They then started their own company and even won a prize - 40,000 euros - in the Vodafone Mobile for Good competition to further develop the kit. “The name Amplino is in fact the combination between Arduino and amplification, which is something you do with PCR,” said Bruins. PCR is a method for amplifying segments of DNA and it can be used to detect disease.

Amplino's aim is to to take the device into field trials next year. They are an example of a startup spinning out from an activist movement. “It is now possible to go online, take electronic tools that didn't exist years ago, and set up a project to build a PCR device. You don’t need to be a specialist any more, nor to have 30 years of training to set up such a company. You can build prototypes by using tutorials online and Arduino, and you can educate yourself,” explains Bruins. Amplino’s creators hope their device will help health workers identify malaria carriers who show no symptoms. The machine will also be equipped with GPS and a mobile data connection to send the results to Amplino’s database, in order to map the incidence of the disease.

Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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