Scientific patents – a necessary evil?

Although some have already covered the issue of gene patenting in their posts, I’d like to take a slightly different stance on the issue.

In Nova (part 7 “Who owns the genome?”), the issue of gene patenting is only shown in a rather negative way. To the extent that gene patenting was covered, namely the patenting of certain gene sequences without knowing their function, it is certainly holding back the scientific community.

However, to an extent, patents are essential to supporting scientific research, especially when pharmaceutical companies becomes involved. The development of certain drugs to act on various protein receptors (which are coded for in certain DNA sequences), is incredibly expensive, and government funding can be hard to come by. When pharmaceutical companies become interested in certain research, the prospect of patenting certain ideas can lead them to funding research projects that otherwise would not be explored.

Naturally, the funding of research by these private institutions is generally self-serving, nevertheless it enables the research of topics that would otherwise be ignored. To this extent I believe patents become a very important part of scientific research, because it gives private institutions an incentive to fund research that would otherwise be abandoned.

Therefore, I would only support patenting to the extent that it helps scientific research (e.g. protecting something that is known to, or has a high chance of yielding significant results), but not in any case in which someone is simply patenting any DNA sequences they come by in hopes of getting lucky.

With this in mind, I would like to shortly address the “My genome: sold to the highest bidder”post, in which the author claims that it is, “…absolutely ridiculous that someone can own a part of MY [her] own genome.”The post argues that no one should be able to patent the human genome, because scientists don’t own the DNA, and because patenting goes against the ideals of science. Although I will agree that Craig Venter is a rather pompous snob (although I’d call him more of a narcissist), I have to disagree with their position on gene patenting. Sorry, but since all humans are 99% genetically identical, other people do have the right to continue discovering and patenting DNA sequences that are commonly found amongst humans. And not only that, but proteins to.

The problem with arguing against all patents on DNA sequences, is that private institutions that fund a lot of research in this country only do so because of the monetary incentive. Without private funding a lot of the research currently being done would be impossible. And yes, science is about discovery, but it is rather difficult to make discoveries without any funding.

This would solve the issue of limited funding for scientific research ...

So I say that if you have found a novel DNA sequence and can prove that it has a certain function (obviously other than detecting itself), then go ahead and patent it.

P.S. For anyone worried about having to pay for the rights to their genes, you’ll be fine, so go ahead and reproduce.



~ by xanthochroi on January 31, 2010.

2 Responses to “Scientific patents – a necessary evil?”

  1. Patents can support scientific innovation when true inventions are created. The problem with patents on genes is that they are not unique or novel inventions; rather, they are identifying nucleotide sequences which is far from an invention. One could not patent gold for simply “isolating” it from a mine just as genes should not be legally patentable simply because they are “isolated” from the human body. The question is not only do patents lead to progress (which in this case there is a very strong argument that genes patents actually hinder scientific progress), but are naturally-occurring genes patentable material to begin with and the answer should be No.

    In 1980 the Supreme Court said genetically-modified genes are patentable but naturally-occurring genes are not. The Human Genome Project has come out against gene patents saying that genes are a fact of nature and common to all. The USPTO has gone against this ruling and policy and has been wrongfully granting patents on genes since 1994.

    If you assume patents on genes benefit Science (which is a big “if”) you still have to answer the question are genes patentable. Facts of nature cannot be patented. Researchers can patent tests on genes or a drug they develop from studying a nucleotide sequence, but they should not be able to patent the gene itself.

    Eric Hoffman
    Genetic Engineering Policy Campaigner
    Friends of the Earth

  2. You give a very realistic take on gene patenting. Unfortunately this world is driven by the “almighty” buck and we need money in order to fund research. I don’t know a whole lot of gene patenting but I think of it more in terms of genetic testing, such as the BRCA genes being a valid test for breast cancer.

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