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    July 06, 2007

     Gene patent snafu

    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.

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