Feature Gene patents

The locked code

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39190.654132.94 (Published 17 May 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:1032
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

    Despite numerous attempts to prevent it, patenting of genes is still legal. Geoff Watts explains the problems

    A bill introduced earlier this year in the US House of Representatives had one indisputable virtue: brevity. Congressmen Xavier Becerra and Dave Weldon's proposed Genomic Research and Diagnostic Accessibility Act would have added a new section to the US legal code. The bill ran thus: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no patent may be obtained for a nucleotide sequence, or its functions or correlations, or the naturally occurring products it specifies.”1 That was it.

    Had the bill been passed it would have resolved a long running dispute over the legitimacy of patenting genes. But it was not to be. The bill ran out of time, gene patenting remains legal, and the argument goes on. Given that the patent system is long established and generally agreed to be socially desirable, why should its application to genes have proved so contentious?

    For many reasons—not the least of which is a widespread reluctance to view DNA as just another chemical. The information encoded within our genes has helped to make us what we are, influences our health and longevity, and may even offer insights into our close relatives. Hence we have declarations of the kind issued by Unesco, which talks of the genome as our “common human heritage.”2

    The problem with conferring a special status on DNA is that the underpinning emotions can swamp any attempt at reasoned discussion. One notable example is an opinion piece by Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, that appeared earlier this year in the New York Times.3 “You can't patent snow, eagles or gravity, and you shouldn't be able to patent genes either,” he insisted. “Yet by now one fifth of the genes in …

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