The rapidly growing organisation Addgene is located in the Boston university area, just next to MIT. Many other small biotechnology companies and organisations in the area focus on submitting patents, and hope that their next discovery will make them millionaires. But Addgene has another goal; it is not profit-making, but instead trying to build up an infrastructure for researchers.
Joanne Kamens leads the work at Addgene, and shows us round among lab benches, freezers and the enormous piles of small test tubes that they send out every day.
“The focus is very much on open data and open publications. But people don’t talk so much about the need for open material. Having easy, quick access to quality-assured material,” she says.
Joanne Kamens tells us that she is seeing a big change within biological research and biotechnology right now, where more and more researchers are working actively towards a more open research culture. This applies to everything, from receiving more donations, to more open journals, and more and more results being pre-published before being peer reviewed.
“I believe that many researchers have simply had enough of the rigid structures. Just think how much time we save for researchers. I think it should be a requirement from those who fund research that the material shall also be made accessible.”
Library for genetic material
Addgene can most easily be described as a library for genetic material, in the form of plasmides. These are small, ring-shaped pieces of DNA used by bacteria to store extra genetic material, such as antibiotic resistance or the ability to break down a particular form of sugar. Plasmides have become an important tool within biotechnology, as designed plasmides can carry any gene whatsoever; genes that can either be copied or expressed in other bacteria.
The company was formed in 2004 by the biologist Melina Fan, who needed to get hold of genes to conduct an experiment that was based on previous research. She contacted the labs that had used the plasmides earlier, and asked whether they could send them to her. But in many cases she did not even receive an answer.
Together with her brother and husband, she decided to build up a structure that would make it easy for researchers to share and get hold of plasmides. Researchers and labs can donate their plasmides, and others can order them for a small fee.
“In theory, the practice within science is to share results and materials, and make it possible for people to repeat trials. But when you contact labs to get hold of reagents, which are cheap but take time to make, you still can’t get them. That is crazy! So this became the starting point,” Joanne Kamens tells us.
Breakthrough for Addgene
Crispr, the new technology for gene modification, in many ways provided the breakthrough for Addgene. Many of the pioneers within the field chose to make their results, and their plasmides, freely accessible to other researchers via the organisation. Many researchers who have used plasmides from Addgene also choose to send in plasmides to the Addgene library.
“They have created a cycle of openness and innovation within this field, as so many have chosen to donate.”
According to her, access to plasmides has also been one of the reasons why the research field surrounding the Crispr technology has grown so fast.
Material for basic research
The plasmides that are held in Addgene’s library are accessible to all researchers around the world. But they must be used for basic research, not for developing pharmaceuticals or other products. Only a small proportion, a few per cent, may be ordered by companies.
All who donate material to Addgene sign an agreement that the plasmides can be sent to all other researchers, and those who order material sign an agreement to comply with the guidelines. Making the agreements standardised, international and digital has been the key to the organisation’s functioning, ensuring that it does not have to spend thousands of hours on contract law every year, according to Joanne Kamens.
“Around 80 per cent of all our plasmides have been ordered at least once by a researcher, and some of them have been ordered thousands of times.”
Sent the millionth plasmide
Around 4 000 labs around the world send plasmides to Addgene, and in September this year Addgene sent out its millionth plasmide. Most of the users, and donors, are in the USA. Of the 60 000 plasmides held in the library, just over 600 are from Sweden, and Swedish researchers have ordered plasmides around 7 000 times.
“Researchers can order from anywhere; we have received orders from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela during the crisis, from all sorts of places.”
The major challenge for Addgene is to continue receiving new plasmides.
“Science is changing constantly, and if we do not receive the new, hot things, then we will die,” says Joanne Kamens.