Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Gene patents - stifling innovation?

There have been a couple of events that have spurred me into voicing my own opinions with regard to gene patenting. The first is the Myriad gene patent of BRCA1 and BRCA2 which was overturned some weeks ago, and is now being contested (hardly a surprise when there is such a monetary incentive!). The other is an interview with ex-UK HGP director, John Sulston, in which he lays out his own concerns about gene patenting. We have to remember he was around at the start of the idea of being able to patent a gene or genome, when Craig Venter started up Celera in a bid to beat the public sequencing effort to the prize, and thus charge researchers for the privilege of accessing our own genomes.

I’m a fan of open access and transparency in science, in fact I would go so far as to say that it is a necessity of good scientific practise, and upholds and empowers the scientific method and the concept of science itself. So the idea of patenting a gene, or its specific variants, which was not invented, and is present in numerous persons within a given population, is anathema to the open access and transparent nature of good scientific practise. It prevents researchers from unhindered research into the mechanisms of mutations within the gene in question, and the ability to use it for clinical applications, such as diagnostic indicators in disease, or as prognostic indicators of therapeutic response or adverse side effects.

This is one of the major problems that can crop up when some of the drivers of pharmacological research have financially vested interests, as is the case with Myriad and other pharmaceutical companies. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a dig at BigPharma, it’s a dig at the money-grabbers, bureaucrats and lawyers for thinking they could ever place a patent on a naturally occurring biological molecule. If they are going to patent something to protect their intellectual property, do it in a responsible manner that does not stifle progress and innovation in the name of financial gain. Patent the diagnostic test and specific protocol itself if needs be; surely that protects their intellectual property sufficiently?

Now, I’m not a patent lawyer (I once heard a talk given by a chap going through the training, I wouldn’t want to subject myself to that level of tedium and mind-numbing law-talk, despite the excellent remuneration), so I don’t know the inner-workings of patent law, and the loop holes and requisites required, but the Myriad patent case and others in Australia need to set a precedent that naturally occurring biological molecules, complexes and machinery are not patentable, and that any artificial or derived variations on the natural theme are shown to be, with sufficient supporting evidence, sufficiently different that they are unlikely to exist, or occur within nature itself.

That should rule out any unscrupulous companies trying to patent rare variants too.

I understand the importance of patents, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong here), the patent offices were originally set up to promote innovation whilst protecting the rights of the inventors themselves. So we need to keep that original basis in mind when we consider the patenting of biological materials. Will this patent promote, or stifle, innovation?

Gene patenting can only ever stifle innovation that arises from competition, thus it is untenable, and should be rejected outright.

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