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For all the hullabaloo surrounding the completion of the rough draft of the entire human genome, this feat doesn’t mean much. The DNA sequences gathered so far are little more than raw material for new therapies and new knowledge of how the body works. As columnist Steve Hall points out (see “Botstein’s Caveat”), the real work of refining the raw material has just begun. And in that work, rights to DNA sequences will be critically important.

Yet those rights will become increasingly controversial as time passes, because they intersect with an important and as yet unanswered question: Should it be possible to patent human genes? Biotechnology corporations argue that without the ability to profit from their work, bestowed by patent rights to specific genes, they will have no incentive to invest in R&D. In this issue’s cover package on gene patenting, that point of view is lucidly presented by William Haseltine, CEO of Human Genome Sciences-an early and important player in the race to develop genetically based medicines (see “The Case for Gene Patents”).

But the corporate point of view isn’t the only one that should be heard in the coming debate over gene patents, argues writer Seth Shulman. In a strongly opinionated proposal, Shulman offers his own prescription (see “Toward Sharing the Genome”). He suggests that the raw genetic sequences should always remain in the public domain, as a zone free of intellectual property claims. Like the national parks, the initial product of the Human Genome Project is a part of our biological heritage that should be preserved and protected for future generations, Shulman argues. It’s fine, he says, for patents to be granted on specific treatments developed from genetic data. But the raw DNA sequence itself should remain in the common weal.

Who’s right? The corporate chieftain or the crusading penman? We can’t presume to make that call for you; the issues are too new and complex. Clearly, the common good and the incentives for corporate R&D both need to be protected. The central issue, as in many important technology controversies, is how to strike the right balance. To provide the factual background to help you decide where you come down on the spectrum connecting private and public goods, we offer an informative survey of gene patenting by TR’s own Antonio Regalado. In “The Great Gene Grab,” Regalado takes you into the history of gene patents (they’ve been around longer than you might think).His reporting provides the context needed to evaluate the other viewpoints in the package.When you’ve come to your own conclusions, we invite you to share them with your fellow TR readers in an online forum.

Wherever you come down on the balance between the private sector and the public weal, we feel confident that, after reading this package, you’ll agree on one thing: These issues, which will only grow more significant over the years to come, need to be aired in a full public debate that ranges all the way up to the halls of Congress. They’re too important to be left only to appointed officials in the Patent Office who often lack any formal training in science and ethics. They are, after all, our genes, and we ought to help decide who has the right to exploit them.

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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