Scientists celebrate Bermuda Principles’
Scientists from around the world have visited Bermuda for a conference in celebration of a landmark agreement made here 21 years ago.
The “Bermuda Principles”, which were agreed on at a summit at the Fairmont Southampton in 1996, led to the results of the Human Genome Project being made publicly available, accelerating genetic research internationally.
Bermudian scientist Carika Weldon said that while the agreement was hugely significant in the world of genetics, it was relatively unknown locally, saying she only learnt about it while watching a documentary.
“Essentially there was a meeting in Bermuda in February 1996 where 50 scientists met in Bermuda,” she said. “They came here because it was mainly US and UK labs that were involved in the Human Genome Project and this was a neutral place.
“The core of the meeting was to decide what they were going to do with the gene sequences once each lab churned them out. When each gene gets sequenced, does the lab patent that gene and own the sequence or would they agree together that they would put that information in the public domain?
“I don’t know if it was the sunshine on the beaches, but they decided to do the right thing and put it in the public domain within 24 hours of sequencing being completed.”
By making the sequences freely available online, the resource became easily accessible, helping researchers around the world conduct their work.
“It helped to promote and accelerate scientific research to where it is today,” Dr Weldon said. “If everyone had owned those gene sequences, patented them, researchers would have to fork out more money and it would take longer for research to happen.
“Interestingly the Bermuda Principles are no longer just used in genetics or even science. It has been a model for other disciplines.”
As a Bermudian, Dr Weldon said that it had repeatedly been suggested that she should organise a conference in Bermuda, but in the documentary she discovered a reason beyond being able to show off the island.
The conference, held at the Fairmont Southampton last weekend, drew 31 researchers in the field of genetic splicing from the US, Canada, the UK, Spain, France, Japan, Singapore and Switzerland, who discussed their research in the spirit of openness at the heart of the Bermuda Principles.
And in an effort to give back to the community, Dr Weldon said there were efforts made to get young people involved. Several Bermudian students were partnered with the international professors, who acted as mentors during their time on the island.
“The students were able to ask them about science and kind of pick their brains,” she said. “I did my best to match them with people who were linked to what they were interested in.”
The conference also hosted a debate by the Bermuda Youth Parliament who debated if, given the option, Bermuda should have patented and profited from the gene sequences.
“That was a highlight,” she said. “We had five students on each side who did a stellar job debating both sides of the story. The arguments they had even surpassed what I was thinking of. The international scientists who came to Bermuda for the conference actually came to the debate, and afterwards they were saying they did a really good job.
“Both teams were very strong and their points were animated and got the audience going. It really shows the intelligence and passion of our youth, who can debate such touchy issues in an intellectual way. They blew us away.”
Dr Weldon said plans were already afoot to turn the conference into an annual event, adding that Bermuda has much to offer the scientific community and there was great potential for further collaboration.
“We had two talks from Bermudians,” she said. “One was from a senior scientist at Bios, who works on using sea urchins as a model for cancer, ageing and cell development. She presented her research and everyone who was there are now buzzing about sea urchins because we didn’t realise how good a model they are. It opened up everyone’s minds that they can use this and partner with Bios in splicing.
“We also had a talk from an intellectual property lawyer. People were saying that was a really good talk because we don’t really get taught about that at any point in our career. We kind of have to figure it out.
“What we want for next year is to develop it into a more holistic conference where we start from grass roots to deep science into therapy and technology before showcasing the legal and financial side of biotechnology and how it works.”