Why We Should Simplify Transfers Of Research Materials

Research paradigms are changing rapidly in the modern era of science. Open access and data sharing are the new mantras. Yet when it comes to sharing of biological materials, institutions tend to rest on the tried and tested laurels of formalized material transfer agreements.

Not satisfied with the various standard agreements that are now available, technology transfer offices (TTOs) may insist on using their own meticulously and painstakingly drafted agreements or on tinkering with the agreements that they receive from the other party. As negotiations drag on and documents sit in the in-trays of senior university bureaucrats waiting for signing, science is delayed or, at worst, abandoned.

In our recent study, Provenance and Risk in Transfer of Biological Materials, published in PLOS Biology, we discuss the types of strategies that could be employed to speed the transfer process, with a particular focus on the promotion of simplicity.


One of the best examples of simplicity is the Uniform Biological Material Transfer Agreement (UBMTA) and the Simple Letter Agreement developed by the National Institutes of Health the Association of University Technology Managers. Although it has a distinctly US flavor, institutions in a number of countries have signed up to use it. Despite this, and despite the fact that the UBMTA came into existence in 1995, we are still not seeing a widespread uptake. Even where the UBMTA is used, there seems to still be an almost irresistible urge to adapt it to fit with institutional requirements.


The UBMTA and other standard agreements are being adopted successfully by some organizations that provide a go-between service in the transfer of biological materials. Addgene, whose job it is to openly distribute the reagents, RNA and plasmids for research on genome editing using Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), is enjoying enormous success. Its distribution of CRISPR-related plasmids increased 10-fold from 2013 to 2017.

Similarly, the BioBricks Foundation (BBF) has developed the BioBrick Public Agreement and, in collaboration with Open Plant, the Open Material Transfer Agreement for making engineered biological sequences available for others to use. Clearly, the use of distribution networks and intermediaries creates efficiencies by removing choice from the negotiating process. But the Addgene and Biobricks examples are more than this. They illustrate how a simple, standardized agreement can enable researchers to exchange biomaterials more freely, with features such as attribution, provenance tracking, and ease of use.

A Need for Complexity

There are undoubtedly circumstances where an escalation to complexity is necessary. One example is when commercial parties are involved and the purpose of the exchange goes beyond research use. Another is where human tissue is the subject of the transfer. Ethical obligations to the donor and cultural sensitivities must be given due regard. Another area of particular concern is the exchange of nonhuman materials sourced from natural resources, for which benefit sharing is paramount.

Understanding Risk to Simplify Transfer

For the most part, all that is needed in a research-based material transfer agreement is a record of the transfer, so that the provenance of the material is recorded and the source may be properly attributed. For a vast majority of material transfers, the potential that perceived risks associated with such matters as safety, third party liability, and loss of commercial opportunity will actually eventuate is minimal. As we noted in our PLOS Biology paper, “Rather than focusing on the perceived risks that TTOs identify in association with exchange of materials, the ‘risk’ against which TTO performance should be measured is that of nonconformity with conceptions of open sharing.”

These findings are described in the article entitled Provenance and risk in transfer of biological material, recently published in the journal PLOS BiologyThis work was conducted by Jane Nielsen, Don R. C. Chalmers, Rebekah McWhirter, James Scheibner, Tess Whitton, and Dianne Nicol from the University of Tasmania, Tania Bubela from Simon Fraser University, Amber Johns from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Linda Kahl from the BioBricks Foundation, Joanne Kamens from Addgene, Charles Lawson from Griffith University, John Liddicoat from the University of Cambridge, and Ann Monotti from Monash University.