Giving science away for free and a primer on health-care negotiations

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“Finders keepers” is the usual rule when it comes to deciding who owns scientific discoveries. But some Canadian scientists have a radically different idea — giving their science away, free. It’s a bold Canadian experiment that contrasts with the fierce fight underway in a U.S. patent court over who owns CRISPR, the revolutionary new gene-editing tool and one of the most important discoveries in the history of science.

And speaking of CRISPR, a Toronto group has made the cover of the prestigious journal Cell with a discovery about how to turn the CRISPR editing system off. Watch their cool animation explaining how it all works.

Also this week, a quick insider briefing about what’s at stake as Ottawa and the premiers face off over health care.

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The Patent Trap. Should CRISPR be free?

They lined up early for a ringside seat at the most sensational scientific showdown in the modern era, as the historic fight for the patent rights to the CRISPR gene-editing technology got underway in a U.S. courtroom on Monday. The winner will walk away with billions of dollars in licensing fees and total control over one of the world’s most important scientific discoveries.

CRISPR inventors

The current patent fight over the gene-editing technique CRISPR pits The University of California’s Jennifer Doudna (left) against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Feng Zhang (right). (Anna Webber/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

But what if there was no need to fight? What if CRISPR was offered up free to the world, unencumbered by licenses or restrictions, open to all, to advance the health of humanity?

That’s what would happen if it were up to Aled Edwards at the University of Toronto. As head of the Structural Genomics Consortium, he’s been giving away scientific discoveries for more than a decade, including molecules that could become future drugs. Dr. Guy Rouleau and his 60 scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital have also sworn off patents for their research into ALS, Parkinson’s disease and glioma brain tumours. It’s part of a radical experiment in public sector research.

Toronto scientists discover ‘off-switch’ for CRISPR

​The CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system has revolutionized biological research in just a few years, making it easier to edit DNA with greater precision than ever before. But the genetic editing tool isn’t perfect, and that’s why it’s important to know how to turn it off.

That’s where Karen Maxwell, assistant professor at the University of Toronto comes in. She and her colleagues have discovered the first “off-switches” and their anti-CRISPR system is being published on the cover of the prestigious journal Cell. Check out Maxwell’s lively animation explaining how it all works.

Q & A: Chris Hall on federal-provincial health-care talks

This week, Canada’s premiers finally got their wish. They’ve been pressing the prime minister for a meeting on health-care funding for months, and he finally agreed to talk about it at a working dinner in Ottawa.

li-prescrip-drugs

Premiers and the prime minister were set to discuss health care at a working dinner Friday. (CBC)

The Canada Health Transfer — the amount of money Ottawa transfers to provinces and territories for health care annually — has been a hot-button issue. The annual escalator for the transfer has been set at six per cent for years, but the previous Conservative government said that rate would fall to a minimum of three per cent a year in 2017. The Liberals promised a new health accord, but angered the provinces when they announced their intention to stick with the three per cent annual increase.

We asked Chris Hall, CBC’s national affairs editor, what’s at play as Ottawa and the provinces square off.

How is the federal government justifying a cut to the annual escalator despite rising costs and an aging population?
The Liberals are sticking with that decision, arguing that they want to tie health-care funding to specific projects such as the campaign promise to dedicate $3 billion over four years to home care. Health Minister Jane Philpott says that approach allows Canadians to see exactly where governments are spending, and to measure the difference it makes.

Where might there be areas of compromise?
The provinces want guarantees that any federal money for programs such as home care not be time limited. My colleague David Cochrane reported this week that the provinces might be willing to compromise if Ottawa guarantees that money for agreed-on priorities is made permanent, so they won’t be left carrying the full cost of expanded services when the federal contribution runs out. The federal government is willing to consider that demand. But there’s no movement likely on the province’s demand that the feds restore the annual six per cent increase of the Canada Health Transfer.

What’s next?
Details could be finalized later this month at meetings of federal and provincial finance and health ministers. Philpott told CBC in an interview earlier this fall that the only way to get new health-care funding in the 2017 federal budget is to ensure an agreement is reached with the provinces by the end of the year.

CBC’s Rosemary Barton explains the health-care funding fight1:58

Pay now or pay even more later

That’s the warning from a coalition of mental health organizations that will be watching the health care talks very closely. They’re hoping the prime minister will make good on his promise to improve access to mental health care.

National pharmacare: The (randomly selected) citizens speak

It’s not high on the government’s priority list, but that hasn’t stopped a parliamentary committee from examining the issue of a publicly-funded drug plan. Last week, we told you about the Citizens’ Reference Panel on Pharmacare in Canada, a group of Canadians randomly selected to weigh in on the issue. Our Vik Adhopia was in Ottawa on Tuesday when the panel revealed its report.

Citizen panel calls for universal pharmacare in Canada2:06

Vital deliveries

Amazon wants to one day use drones to deliver your holiday gifts. But what about using drones to deliver the gift of life? The unmanned flying devices have been used to transport blood samples for lab tests, but it’s a lot more complex to move the large quantities of blood required for transfusions.

Now a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University has shown it can be done. They loaded red blood cells, platelets, and plasma into a 5-quart cooler with different types of ice and strapped it to the bottom of a drone. They then sent it 100 metres into the air, and tried flying it up to 20 kilometres away. Back in the lab, success! They determined the samples maintained temperature and there was no cell damage.

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Giving science away for free and a primer on health-care negotiations

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