Rockefellers of Research

I was at the annual Society of Neuroscience conference last week in Chicago, and noticed something unusual in one of the poster sessions. There was a row dedicated to posters on the topic of “optogenetics”. If you don’t know what that is, it’s the use of light-sensitive ion channels, genetically expressed in neurons, to study neural circuitry. Really, it means installing traffic lights into neurons that a researcher can turn on or off at will. It’s a big deal right now, because the channels can be expressed in specific cell types, and because stimulating cells in vivo can be much less invasive and exact than it used to be.

I walked down the row of about fifteen posters, and noticed that it was just a little busier than most rows. People were crowded around trying to hear explanations given by slightly overwhelmed grad students. Understandable. But as I looked at the poster authors, I noticed that there was one name that was on every single poster: Karl Deisseroth, Professor, Stanford University.

That wasn’t surprising in itself, since he’s been publishing in top journals almost every other month for the last year or so. He gave a special lecture on the subject that was heavily attended at 8:30 AM. Heck, he came up with the name “optogenetics” in the first place.

What was amazing was that he seemed to be involved in everybody’s research on this topic. He wasn’t first author on anything. He was involved in numerous collaborations. I talked to another guy at Stanford that wanted to get in on it, since it was the thing to do there. I realized something: Karl Deisseroth had become the John D. Rockefeller of an entire technical application.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Anyone working in relativity had to work in some way with Einstein. Similar things happened to Watson and Crick, Linus Pauling, the guys who invented knock-out mice and RNA interference. Eventually, techniques become widespread and commercialized and can’t be academically monopolized anymore, but for a while, someone can own a technique like a baron.

There are no anti-trust laws in academic science, and there have never been reasons for them. Most ideas fly around the scientific community very quickly and are easily replicable. But situations like this show the exception to the rule. And you can’t blame Deisseroth for being smart and working hard and figuring out how to do something that everyone wants to do. It’s a fantastic time to be him. In fact, it would be hard to form any criticism at all of a research monopoly, presuming that the science was credible and that collaborations are formed.

Except that it makes a boring ending to a blog post about it.

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