Gene patent snafu

The scientific basis of gene patents turns out to be wrong.

Remember all the opposition to the patenting of genes, swept away by the biotech industry and the usual legal hirelings of such engrossers of the knowledge commons? Fuddy-duddy objections that genes are discoveries not inventions, and fuddy-duddy-cubed ones that patenting the components of God’s or Nature’s gift of life is at best hubris, at worst sacrilege?

It turns out that the scientific basis of gene patents was wrong. A stretch of DNA doesn’t just encode a protein one-for-one; what it does typically depends on interactions with other genes. And since you can’t – I assume – patent the whole genome, the logical basis for gene patents collapses. Serves them right.

I don’t know the right way to provide reasonable incentives for applied research in genomics while keeping the principle that scientific knowledge is public. But there’s an example that could inspire us. A pharmacologist friend of mine, Mike Spedding, is leading an international effort by a scientific association called IUPHAR to create a comprehensive database of human cell receptors, in the public domain. You find an agent that blocks or activates that receptor, you can patent it; the boundary of intellectual property in drugs should roughly speaking be the cell membrane. Looks about right to me.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web