The concern about who owns commercial rights to our genetic material is manifest high and low. At the highest levels of the National Institutes of Health, deep ambivalence about patenting has shown itself in health officials’ ongoing efforts to convince the Patent Office to make gene patents more difficult to secure. At the National Academy of Sciences, gene patents have been included in a new study, “Intellectual Property in the Knowledge-Based Economy,” that is intended to determine whether the patents help or hinder innovation. And activists associated with the well-known biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin say they are planning a legal challenge to gene patents that they hope to take all the way to the Supreme Court.
That’s in the towers of Washington. In the streets the issue is also heating up. Over seven days last March, Boston played host to both the largest-ever biotech industry conference and the largest gathering of anti-biotech protesters in North America. One genomics company CEO, Jonathan Rothberg of CuraGen in New Haven, Conn., describes taking off his nametag and venturing across the police barriers that separated the industry proceedings from the colorful crowd of protesters. Rothberg says he was troubled by what he heard. “I spent the day with the protesters. I’d say 90 percent were worried about genetically modified food, and 10 percent were worried about people patenting their genes,” says Rothberg. “I watched the genetically-modified food debate tilt in the wrong direction. I look at our own industry and I realize that we are causing undue anxiety.”
Could it be public opinion that ultimately determines whether gene patents actually promote the creation of new medical treatments? “This subject is not going to run away, and at the end of the day the general public is potentially going to get involved in this if they feel the system is being used unfairly,” says Michael Morgan, chief executive of the Wellcome Trust’s Genome Campus in Cambridge, England. “The ownership of ‘my genes’ is an emotive rallying call for all kinds of folks, and we need to be aware of that or we are going to hinder the development of new drugs.”
Although gene patenting has been going on for years, as far as the man and woman on the street are concerned, the debate has just begun. And if it follows the course of other recent biomedical controversies over cloning and stem cell research, it may be one argument that politicians and ordinary citizens will not be content to leave in the hands of scientists, pharmaceutical companies or patent lawyers.
Gene Patent Fever
The number of gene patents granted each year has shot up almost 14-fold since 1990. Data include patents on human, animal, plant and microbial gene sequences.
Top 10 patent holders Incyte Genomics 397 University of California 253 Glaxo SmithKline 248 U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services 205 Novo Nordisk 196 Genentech 165 Isis Pharmaceuticals 146 Chiron 135 American Home Products 130 Novartis 128