TR: Your center works closely with industrial partners, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Affymetrix and a company you helped start, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, to develop just such predictive technologies. Have the lines between academia and industry been redrawn?
LANDER: Oh absolutely, but industry and academia still have very different jobs. Academia continues to be the place to make the basic discoveries that are not “appropriable” as private intellectual property. So for example, the understanding of cancer and how a cancer cell works are things that no company can lock up and therefore it makes no sense for companies to be investing in. It’s what is called a “public good.”
I think the majority of biology remains a public good, in the sense that it is fundamental knowledge. The minute something becomes appropriable in an economic sense, however, it often makes more sense for industry to take it over. What used to happen is that the gap between the fundamental and applied knowledge was decades in biology. Now the gap is six to 12 months. So it means there is a much tighter coupling and a much greater intellectual interchange between the two.
TR: Your industry partners have commercial rights to improved genomics technologies developed with their money. What kind of restrictions does that put on you as an academic?
LANDER: The conditions of that alliance are very explicit in that regard. We are free to publish or speak about anything as long as we have given 60 days’ notice. The 60 days are there to be able to file any patents that should be filed. We have yet to find this to be a serious limitation, because it’s hard to get anything in a scientific journal faster than 60 days. Also, the benefit of this industrial consortium is not so much specific patents as it is a community of researchers both in academia and industry who are working together to push the edge of the technology.
TR: Is the Human Genome Project racing in order to prevent Celera from patenting human genes?
LANDER: Really, the issue has less to do with patents than with secrecy. The international Human Genome Project is about guaranteeing that the sequence of the human genome will not be a trade secret and will be freely available in everyone’s hands, with no restrictions on its distribution or on its analysis. That is our purpose and that is the race that we have won.
The patenting problem is a decade old, and Celera is a Johnny-come-lately. Most of the patents that are going to matter are held by the five or six genomics companies that preceded Celera, like Human Genome Sciences and Incyte Genomics. While I do agree that there have been very serious problems with patent law, Celera is not going to be the principal beneficiary of any of that.
TR: What is your view of gene-related patents?
LANDER: All patents are a bargain between society and inventors made to incent innovation. The question is, what sort of bargains do we want to strike? For the last three years the Patent Office was saying that naked gene sequence about which you know nothing, or very little, is patentable. When something is trivial and involves no substantial inventive step, like running a gene sequencer, it’s my sense that society shouldn’t be setting the bar so low.
In fact, the difficult step is figuring out what a gene does and what it’s good for. And therefore we ought to have a social policy that sets the bar there. Recently, the Patent Office has begun to move in the right direction, although it still has a ways to go. We don’t want to find that we have given away the monopolies to the people who did the easy steps and have left less to incent the people who have to do the hard steps. Pharmaceutical companies already are worrying about working on a particular gene for fear that some other company has a patent on it. Well, the big losers in this case are patients.
TR: The Hollywood movie GATTACA is about unhappy people living in a world where success and social status are determined by their genes. Is that where we are headed?
LANDER: That’s the idea of genetic determinism, and I am quite opposed to it. Privacy and nondiscrimination are really the two big issues and there are many people, including myself, who are worried that our society has not put in place the proper protections.
I believe in absolute privacy for genetic information. I want this to be information that every patient can have access to on his or her own terms. And I don’t want any insurance company, any employer or any government to have any say over that information or to be able to gain access to it without the explicit consent of the patient.
I would also like to see strong statements in legislation that say that genes are not an allowable basis for discrimination. There are a lot of things that we have decided that it is just flat-out wrong to discriminate on, such as race. Well, I don’t see why we shouldn’t put genes in with that. And if there are any exceptions to be drawn, we can worry about that later.
TR: In the absence of any national legislation, are there a lot of examples of genomic information being misused?
LANDER: Examples of misuses still remain few because, as with many technologies, there is a phase where it is not efficient to use this information and so people don’t gather it. But then there comes a tipping point after which it is very efficient, but by then it’s too late if you don’t have the legislation in place. It’s a mistake to conclude that we have a long time to sort this out, because a decade from now it will probably be too late. We have to get everyone to understand that the human genome should never be used as a tool to divide people.