Synthetic biology and global health in the age of intellectual property

H. van den Belt

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Although synthetic biology (SB) conjures up a future cornucopia of new medicines and other health applications, the antimalarial drug artemisinin is still one of the few concrete illustrations to substantiate this promise. As SB’s favorite poster child, it is atypical because it exemplifies a rather unusual mixture of lavish philanthropy and ad hoc institutional arrangements. A more probing analysis of the moral issues that SB and its medical applications are likely to raise, especially from the angle of global justice, has to look beyond the special circumstances of this particular case. The current international situation is characterized by a confrontation between a still dominant trend to strengthen and expand patents and other intellectual property rights (the IP frame) and an emerging movement to ensure access to knowledge and information (the A2K frame). The contrasting approaches of Craig Venter’s model of proprietary science and the ‘open-source’ model of the BioBricks school show that SB is located right at heart of this major contest. The eventual outcome of this legal, political and scientific contest will also be decisive for whether or not developing countries and the world’s poor are to remain at the receiving end of decisions taken by western companies and philanthropists or can rely more on their own initiatives to improve their health situation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSynbio and Human Health: A Challenge to the Current IP Framework?
EditorsI. de Miguel Beriain, C.M. Romeo Casabona
Number of pages229
ISBN (Print)9789401791960
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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