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By Kevin Davies

May 15, 2004 | Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Lincoln Stein was named the winner of the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Award, an annual prize given by to a scientist who epitomizes the open-source spirit of the great inventor. The award was presented at the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo on March 31 by Jeff Bizzaro, president of the Bioinformatics Organization.

Stein was lauded for his creation of numerous open-source bioinformatics programs and championing of open-source principles. He is currently working on the Generic Model Organism Database (GMOD) Project to produce open-source software components for model organism bioinformatics; the Generic Genome Browser, a Web-based genome visualization system; and Genome KnowledgeBase, for the ontology of core biological pathways. He is also a core developer of the Bioperl software library.

In his acceptance speech, Stein amused -- and probably alarmed -- members of the audience with his plea for a radical overhaul of the drug discovery process. The current system is not working, Stein lamented -- the patent system encourages “me too” drugs while discouraging research into neglected diseases. Incrementally modified drugs provided a better payoff. Only 25 percent of new drugs show therapeutic improvement. Only 2 percent to 3 percent of drug revenues go toward developing novel drugs.

By contrast, in software development, a community, open-source spirit enables the development of “orphan” software. “You will never see ‘Microsoft BLAST,’” Stein joked.

Stein’s prescription for pharma? Let pharmas focus on manufacturing and distributing generics, while taxpayers and governments fund R&D directly. Priorities would be set by public health causes, not marketing considerations, allowing drugs to reach the Third World sooner. Stein pointed out precedents for such a scheme: government-funded protease inhibitors for AIDS, and the polio vaccine.

While the audience was checking to make sure this wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke, Stein acknowledged that there was no chance of his plan reaching fruition. But it was important to continue developing generics and discouraging freeloaders. “It is our moral obligation,” he said.

The other finalists this year were Ewan Birney (European Bioinformatics Institute), Michael Gazzaniga (Dartmouth College), Don Gilbert (Indiana University), and Matthew Stephens (University of Washington). Past winners of the Franklin Award were Michael Eisen (2002), founder of the Public Library of Science, and Jim Kent (2003), creator of the GoldenPath genome assembly.

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