About us

BioProperty is a research project on the future of property rights in biomedical research at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS). BioProperty is directed by Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance, and funded by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council. InSIS is part of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, and a member of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.

BioProperty investigates the evolving structures of ownership in the life sciences. Our research group is currently conducting fieldwork on the following projects.

 

1. Exchange Practices in Global Health Research

Contemporary social scientific accounts of property and ownership in the life sciences do not address the complex and geographically distributed relationships involved in transnational biomedical research.  As part of the BioProperty programme, we are conducting a series of ethnographic investigations that aim to fill this gap in our understanding. For instance, we are currently studying the processes of governance, exchange, sharing, value-creation and appropriation that take place in transnational clinical trials. We are also investigating the role that mediating devices, virtual organisations and ‘open laboratories’ play in enabling the sharing of proprietary assets between public and private actors engaged in drug discovery and development.   

This stream of research is guided by the following concerns:

  • How different partners conceptualise and attribute meaning to collaboration
  • How the division of labour is organised in multi-sited medical research, including how tasks are apportioned, shared, or ‘owned’ by different members of a trial team
  • How exchange practices (e.g. sharing, giving, transferring) shape trial networks; what are the dynamics of ‘give-and-take’)
  • The role of particular places or locales (e.g. 'open laboratories') in enabling unrestricted sharing of proprietary assets
  • Key features of actors and devices that act as conduits for the exchange and sharing of intellectual property
  • How data is owned and accessed in large transnational research teams (e.g. should we conceive of data as isolated objects/research outputs or rather as part of a heterogeneous and evolving stream of knowledge, materials and techniques? How does this relate to the law’s atomistic approach to ownership?)
  • How transactions occur both formally and informally, e.g. through bargaining, bartering, strategising and negotiating (for instance in relation to collaboration, training, recruiting participants, adhering to protocol, sharing information and materials, publishing and so on)
  • How can we best describe the ontological politics of IP, its role in configuring partners in virtual drug development, and the productive work it does in the transmission of cultural values? 

 

2. The Circulation of Transgenic Organisms and Human-Animal Mixtures

BioProperty explores the proprietary status of novel combinations of human and animal material. This includes the genetic manipulation of animals (mice, chicken, mosquitoes) as well as the advances in embryo and stem cell technologies which have made it possible to mix animals with human tissues and cells. These biotechnological objects sit uneasily within legal and regulatory regimes that take the distinction of human and (non-human) animal for granted. Similarly, they tend to disrupt the categories of appropriability that structure ownership regimes. We are exploring these issues in a number of interconnected projects:

2.1. Human-animal Chimeras: Transformations in Property, Genealogy and Classification

Human-animal chimeras are entities made up of a patchwork of cells from two different sources (one human and one non-human). These entities, and the techniques used to create them in the laboratory, are becoming increasingly important in biomedical research. While there is a long history of the use of animals as models for human disease, advances in the power of techniques to ‘mix’ human and animal materials are expanding. This raises questions about the presumed differences between humans and other animals in the intersecting domains of regenerative medicine, law and regulation.

In some cases chimeric entities, or proposed entities, have a material constitution that resists any clear biological, regulatory or legal taxonomy. This lack of clarity around defining entities as either human or animal has raised concerns about whether the classification of certain biological material could create property rights over humans, or parts of humans. Alongside concerns over the legal and regulatory status of the term ‘human’ are questions about the enforcement of property rights over human-animal mixtures, as well as the need for legal frameworks to order these novel entities. Human-animal chimeras defy simply categorisation and confound conventional notions of property and ownership where appropriation is based on biological materials or products being classified as either human or animal. This stream of research is guided by the following questions:

  • How do scientists, ethicists and policy makers decide what is human and what is animal at cellular, molecular and genetic levels? What implications does this have for understandings of ownership, value and exchange in biomedicine?
  • What are the genealogies of biological practice involved in understanding the overlap and fluidity of species demarcations between humans and other animals?
  • How do understandings of human functionality impinge upon the classification and appropriation of biological entities?
  • How does intellectual property law influence whether research on human-animal chimeras takes place, and on what grounds?

2.2. The Appropriation and Exchange of Transgenic Organisms in Avian Flu Research

Current research on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza involves engineering organisms to both predict and control the next pandemic flu virus. Against heightened concerns about biosecurity, this work raises questions about how to manage the circulation of potentially hazardous organisms across scientific networks and global commodity markets. 

This project investigates two areas of avian flu research and development to understand how pandemic disease threats challenge existing modes of intellectual property, scientific exchange, and commodity ownership. The first area concerns research in which virologists genetically engineer avian flu viruses that transmit easily between ferrets, whose responses to influenza most closely resemble humans. This work sparked debates over how to preserve intellectual property rights and existing forms of intellectual exchange when scientific research poses a biosecurity risk. Increasingly, scientists, national security officials, and citizens are calling for the creation of new mechanisms to regulate the production and exchange of biological materials in pandemic flu research.

The second area examines the development of transgenic chickens that do not transmit H5N1 avian flu viruses to other animals. Researchers suggest that in the future these chickens will be available for large-scale distribution, potentially replacing existing chicken breeds with disease resistant varieties. It remains unclear, however, how and to what extent these animals will be introduced into the global livestock economy, which in many places is dominated by small-scale producers for whom transgenic chickens may be prohibitively expensive. These developments are occurring against worldwide demands for 'natural', 'free range' poultry products emphasising precepts 'traditional' farming techniques and local ownership. Material differences between transgenic and non-transgenic chickens shape how they are appropriated, exchanged, and valued.

The ownership and circulation of genetically modified organisms in avian flu research and development not only shapes global health outcomes, but also affects scientific knowledge production and global livestock economies. Existing modes of biological, economic, and intellectual exchange are thus shifting under pressures to foster scientific innovation while at the same time safeguard lives and livelihoods. 

This research is guided by the following concerns:

  • How do biological information and objects circulate through different regimes of ownership and exchange? What legal and normative frameworks govern these organisms as they move through networks of scientific, economic, and political transaction - which each have their own metrologies for determining value?
  • What material and discursive practices, formal and informal networks, and institutional relationships transform an organism from living being to scientific data to biological weapon to public health good? How do these relationships and practices in turn alter an organism’s proprietary status?
  • How does an organism’s biological relationship to humans - intellectual property, biosecurity risks, biomedical commodities, livestock products - shape its ownership?
  • How do the material processes that produce transgenic organisms affect their proprietary status?

2.3. Genetically modified insects and new property vectors

The genetic modification of insects hopes to turn vectors of disease transmission into public health technologies. Currently, transgenic mosquitoes are being developed and field-tested against a variety of insect-borne tropical diseases – particularly malaria and dengue. Many of these new insect varieties are also under patent protection, however, which raises new questions about the relationship between biological transformation, territorial control, and ownership. Turning an insect into a private object implies that entomological features become attributes of a property.

Form: the insect’s vectorial capacity - its efficiency in bringing into contact multiple species – gives the legal category unexpected reach. While genetically modified animals have long been considered patentable subject matter, insects potentially disrupt some basic assumptions of the law when it comes to the appropriability of transgenic organisms. This project surveys the legal and regulatory landscape concerning genetically modified insects and their ownership. It explores the progressive transition of GM insects from the laboratory to the field, and the implications of their fluid proprietary status.

 

3. Stem Cells and the Appropriability of Pluripotent Life

One of the most significant changes in the economy of biomedical research over the last decade has been the emergence of totipotent and pluripotent human stem cell lines as a multipurpose research instrument. Pluripotency refers to the ability of the cell to differentiate into all or most somatic lineages; totipotent cell lines are those that retain the ability to form an entire organism. The derivation of these lines and their stabilisation as a biomedical research tool herald the arrival of ‘regenerative medicine’.

The development of this field of research has been accompanied by a well-known controversy over the use of human embryos as source for stem cells. Yet, the ability to produce and manipulate human pluripotency and totipotency in the laboratory is also giving rise to a series of critical intellectual property issues. First, because the field has been historically shaped by an unusually expansive ‘patent thicket’ (when in the late 1990s the initial techniques for the derivation of embryonic stem cell lines were developed, the US Patent Office granted a series of very broad patents over the tools and techniques of cell line derivation and culture, giving a few patent holders (i.e. the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) an inordinate amount of control over the evolution of the field.

Second, and perhaps more significantly in the longer term, the availability and patenting of pluripotent and totipotent cell lines has suddenly brought to the fore the scenario that much of the early jurisprudence on the patentability of biotechnological innovations thought distant and highly speculative: the privatisation of human bodies. To what extent is a patent over a totipotent stem cell line, from which a ‘complete’ human organism could be developed, a form of property over human beings?

This project analyses the evolving jurisprudence on stem cell patenting in Europe and North America, the contested production of entitlements to pluripotent life, the interplay between legal and research strategies in a shifting intellectual property rights landscape. The project is structured around the following questions:

  • How do new techniques of stem cell derivation, cultivation and identification affect the appropriability of human stem cells?
  • What is the impact of stem cell reprogramming on the existing distribution of intellectual property rights over stem cell research techniques and materials?
  • How are legal strategies embedded in research infrastructures and practices?