Genome sequencing: Public vs. Private
“Cracking the Code of Life,” a 2002 PBS special about the race for a complete sequencing of human genome information and the astounding implications for our health and society, is peppered with indications of outdatedness. From the prehistoric computers to the fact that the genome was finally mapped in full the year after “Code” aired, you could make arguments about the modern relevance of the eleven-year-old broadcast.
One aspect that was touched on is still germane, however: the fight for public vs. private genetics. In “Code,” genome patents are briefly put in the spotlight. The Human Genome Project, publicly funded by the U.S. government, and private research firm Celera Genomics, engaged in something of a feud over the ethics of patent protecting. Early in the “genome war,” Celera began patenting sections of the genome that it had decoded, leaving the HGP unable to do the necessary research without paying Celera first.
When President Clinton announced that the genome sequence could not be patented, Celera altered their genome database to instead contain a limit to the amount of information that could be downloaded at once. However, Celera had already begun a trend that took more than a decade to be addressed with finality by the government. As mentioned in “Code” by former HGP researcher Eric Lander, patented genetic codes were still causing problems in the quest for a publicly available genome sequence. They mention that at the time of broadcast 20,000 genome patents were still sitting in the U.S. Patent Office waiting for approval, causing HGP scientists no small degree of grief as they became unsure whether any particular sequence they were working on had already been patented.
For the purposes of mapping the entire genome (the goal of the HGP and Celera), many considered the competition spurred by debates about private vs. public genetic sequences to be a boon for both sides; as in the economy, healthy competition can lead to greater innovation and speed. In the modern world of genetics, however, gene patenting remained a problem for some until last year when the Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 decision to ban the practice. This can be seen as both advantageous and unfortunate: while the cost of having your genome sequenced and tested for disease will be reduced, it will also discourage private investors from investing in genetics research in the future.
The ruling does leave certain questions unanswered. As implied in “Code,” the future of the field is not in DNA or genes, but in their products, proteins. Lander states, “See, what’s happening is we’re realizing that if we wanted to understand life, we had to start systematically at the bottom and get all the building blocks. The first building blocks are the DNA letters. From them we can infer the genes. From the genes, we can infer the protein products that they make that do all the work of your cell. Then we’ve got to understand what each of those proteins does, what its shape is, how they interact with each other, and how they make kind of circuits and connections with each other. So in some sense, this is just the beginning of a very comprehensive, systematic program to understand all the components and how they all connect with each other.”
The Supreme Court decision on genetic patenting still leaves the door open to patent naturally occurring proteins or molecules. This is ultimately more likely to have a significant impact on the modern biotech industry.
Vanderbilt University, Student