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1/5 of All Human Genes Have Been Patented 441

Posted by Zonk
from the my-genes-are-my-own dept.
mopslik writes "A story on National Geographic News cites a study claiming that 20% of all human genes 'have been patented in the United States, primarily by private firms and universities.' While universities hold 28% of all gene-related patents, 63% belong to private firms, with a whopping 2000 patented genes (approximately 67%, or 50% total) belonging to a single firm." From the article: "You can find dozens of ways to heat a room besides the Franklin stove, but there's only one gene to make human growth hormone ... If one institution owns all the rights, it may work well to introduce a new product, but it may also block other uses, including research ..."
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1/5 of All Human Genes Have Been Patented

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  • by pmike_bauer (763028) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:50PM (#13793099)
    ...just check my archives.
    God.
  • Correction (Score:5, Informative)

    by mopslik (688435) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:50PM (#13793100)

    Whoops. I realized after hitting "Submit" that I had mixed the "more than 4000 genes" and "20% of 24000 genes" (=4800) in my percentages. Using 4800 as the estimated number of gene-related patents, more accurate numbers are:

    Universities: 28% of all gene-related patents
    4800*0.28=1344 patents held

    Private firms: 63% of all gene-related patents
    4800*0.63=3024 patents held
    2000/3024 = 66% of all firm-held patents held by Incyte
    2000/4800 = 41.6% of all gene-related patents held by Incyte (not 50% as stated)

    • Re:Correction (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:54PM (#13793162) Journal
      On the other hand, in 17 years they will all be free game again. More likely than not not too much will be able to be taken advantage of before then.
      • Re:Correction (Score:5, Insightful)

        by CyricZ (887944) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:57PM (#13793214)
        Unless the patent term is extended some time before then. And then they will still be encumbered.

        • Re:Correction (Score:5, Informative)

          by angle_slam (623817) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:39PM (#13793652)
          Unlike the copyright act, the patent term has remained constant for quite a while. The term was 17 years from issuance from 1861 to 1995. The term was changed to 20 years from filing date in 1995, but that change had only a small effect on patent terms because patents can take up to 3 years from filing to issuance.
        • by Grendel Drago (41496) on Friday October 14, 2005 @05:56PM (#13794246) Homepage
          You see, the tension in copyrights is between large media stakeholders and the great unwashed who want to watch Marx Brothers movies for free.

          The tension in patents is between large monolithic corporations which can afford the patent rigmarole and large monolithic corporations looking to build off existing R&D.

          In one case, there's a balance of power. In the other, there's not. Hence copyright is extended, while patents remain the same.
      • Re:Correction (Score:2, Insightful)

        by killmenow (184444)
        On the other hand, in 17 years they will all be free game again.
        Uhhuh huh uhuh huh huh ... you assume corporate lobbying will not succeed at passing a Sonny Bono Patent Extension Act.

        I, on the other hand...
    • That's OK. You were expecting the editors to actually edit. Then again, this is Slashdot. What were you thinking? :)
    • Re:Correction (Score:4, Insightful)

      by slashdotnickname (882178) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:02PM (#13793268)
      So what does having a "gene patent" mean?

      My RNA is transcribing genes all the time into proteins, am I now violating someone's patent? What's the difference between my body using my genes and some machine I create using them?

      This sounds so retarded... must.. control... urge... to cuss...
      • Re:Correction (Score:5, Informative)

        by MindStalker (22827) <mindstalker&gmail,com> on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:12PM (#13793381) Journal
        Good to see someone asking this question. A gene patent is actually a patent on the method they use to detect the gene (essentially detection is done through a mirror DNA sequence if it sticks its what you where looking for). There really is no patent on that actual gene, but if you can't create this mirror sequence to bind DNA to the detectors there is no real way to do much medical research on it and you have to pay licensing fees to the discover of the gene for the rights to detect and use it. Now know that the patent will end some day.
        • Re:Correction (Score:4, Insightful)

          by rolfwind (528248) on Friday October 14, 2005 @05:40PM (#13794140)
          It sounds to me that one method to detect genes in general was found years ago, and all these gene patents are, are obvious (or semi-obvious) extensions/variations to the method.

          Would that be correct or am I missing the boat?
          • Re:Correction (Score:3, Informative)

            by espressojim (224775)
            Are we talking positional cloning of genes?

            Now, we 'detect genes' by a few methods: heuristics that look for sequence characteristics (ATG starts, open reading frames, GC content, etc), and use the sequences of other organisms to look for higher than normal conservation between genomes to indicate that these regions are mutating more slowly than chance (under selection.)

            I work at the Broad institute, and we just had our yearly retreat this year. One of the amusing things that's come out recently: we've got
  • So.... (Score:5, Funny)

    by i.r.id10t (595143) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:50PM (#13793102)
    So... which one of us meat popsicles gets to claim "prior art" first?
    • Adam and Eve?
      • Wait - wouldn't that mean the Intelligent Designer would actually claim Prior Art then?

        PS: Love your sig. I have a copy of the song sung by the Eva cast out on a street corner. Pretty cool.
  • God has prior art, their patents are invalid.
  • by InsideTheAsylum (836659) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:50PM (#13793106)
    I thought it was a joke that you can patent genes, but I guess it's for real? Wow, that's a real shocker, but it brings up a question, how can you patent something that you didn't invent and what can you do with this patent? Does this mean that 28% of my er.. body belongs to someone else?

    Basically a dumbfounded, "Wh...whaaaaat?"
    • I could see specific applications of using genes in specific ways being patented but the genes themselves? THese seems especially dangerous.

      Will parents be sued for producing works which infringe on these patents?

      1) Patent human genes
      2) Sue Execs from large companies for the crime of having children.
      3) ???
      4) Profit?
      • by jfengel (409917) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:18PM (#13793438) Homepage Journal
        The name "gene patents" is a bit hysterical. The USPTO Guidelines [gpo.gov] say, "If a patent application discloses only nucleic acid molecular structure for a newly discovered gene, and no utility for the claimed isolated gene, the claimed invention is not patentable. But when the inventor also discloses how to use the purified gene isolated from its natural state, the application satisfies the ``utility'' requirement. That is, where the application discloses a specific, substantial, and credible utility for the claimed isolated and purified gene, the isolated and purified gene composition may be patentable."

        So it's not just the DNA sequence that they're patenting; it's the DNA sequence plus a description of how to use it. Not just your body using it, but a technological invention outside your body.

        It still seems like an awful lot of store to give away. The idea is that isolating and understanding the functions of genes is expensive, so to encourage people to do it they're giving away rights to use the results of that research (i.e. more than just props for being the first to describe it.)

        But no, you can't sue somebody for having children; the use of the gene in its natural state (i.e. you) isn't patentable. Producing the same chemical as a medicine is There's a long history of getting patents on stuff you find in nature and putting a use to it; they cite a patent on adrenaline. You didn't lose right right to get excited, but you couldn't bottle up the output of your adrenal gland without coming up against their patent.

        I'm not defending it; I'm just explaining it.
    • It means your mom is in serious trouble if she doesn't shell out licensing fees! Will we see a new RIAA-like organization suing EVERYBODY for violating these patents?
    • by cpu_fusion (705735) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:59PM (#13793232)
      Clippy: I see you are trying to apply logic to the patent system.
      Would you like to:
      1. Take bong hits until this makes sense
      2. Shoot self to save time
      3. Hey look over there, a shiny pebble!
    • News flash, the US patent system is so broken it's not even funny. Let's not forget they allowed Amazon to patent one-click-shopping.
    • by arkham6 (24514) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:07PM (#13793313)
      When I was taking a business trip once, I sat next to a man who turned out to be a lawyer for a biochemical company. How he explained this to me was that the genes that are being patented are not the 'native' gene that is in every human,but a 'purified' version of the gene that has extranious garbage taken out.

      So CGDAAADAACG that you may find in nature, you get CGAAAAACG, since the D enzyme are considered garbage in this example.

      I asked him if they really knew that the D enzyme was really garbage, and he said that they did not, but they were fairly confident it didnt do anything.

    • All your penis are belong to us!
    • I always thought patents applied to inventions, not discoveries.

      ...shows what I know I suppose.
    • how can you patent something that you didn't invent and what can you do with this patent?

      It's not that hard.... Just ask the native american indians how they feel about Europe's "Discovery" of the new world.
  • by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:50PM (#13793110)
    I don't think such patents should be allowed. It's like a company owning a piece of me -- and I wasn't even paid for it!

    The only reasonably good news is that such patents should expire, and when they do they can't be re-patented again. But given the dismal record of extending copyrights well beyond the time of anyone living today, can patents be far behind?

    • I don't think such patents should be allowed. It's like a company owning a piece of me -- and I wasn't even paid for it!"

      Actually, you should just be glad that they won't be like the parasires from the RIAA and sue you for patent infringement. Trillions of acts of patent infringement -- one for each act of transcription. It all adds up.
    • I don't think such patents should be allowed. It's like a company owning a piece of me -- and I wasn't even paid for it!

      I don't know . . . with just a little legislation, this can turn out alright. We need to start making patent holders responsible for the correct functioning of their inventions. Then we can sue them for all of our genetic defects :-)
  • Expiration? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gr8_phk (621180) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:51PM (#13793122)
    Given the amount of time it will take to really grasp how all these genes and things play together, the patents could mostly be expired by the time the innovation comes. Yeah, I know they'll extend them forever like copyrights at some point. Say it with me... P.T.O must Go. P.T.O must Go.
    • by idlake (850372) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:22PM (#13793476)
      The patents basically mean that for the next 20 years, nobody else can even do research on the patent without the permission of the patent holder.

      The patent holder will only give that permission if the people doing the research sign over patent rights to the company owning the original patent.

      Effectively, a lot of research is going to take at least 40 years to happen, with the results being patented out to 60 years. That's when you may start seeing useful stuff finally making it into the public domain.

      That is, of course, provided that other nations give a damn; US patents are valid only in the US, and there are about 150 other nations to choose from where you can do research and treat patients. In many of those, patenting genes is either impossible, or they are considered too small right now to bother patenting in.
  • Facts? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Puls4r (724907) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:54PM (#13793158)
    What ever happened to the idea that you can't patent facts? Discovering WHAT they do doesn't mean you invented them.

    If I discover a new element, can I patent it? Can you imagine if someone patented, say, Gold?
  • Do I violate their patent by copying my genes? I don't understand the concept. I don't think I'm stupid but I can't see how people can support the idea of patenting a series of neucleotides which have been produced by humans for thousands of years. What's really being pattented here?
  • My genes are worthless. I was impotent by the time I was 35.

  • by fuzzy12345 (745891) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:56PM (#13793198)
    Screw this. The US wants me to believe that various organizations and universities own the plans to ME? And of course, through WIPO, they'll want to enforce this insanity worldwide. Slashdot kooks may well believe that this kind of foolishness will hasten the demise of the entire intellectual property system (with massive collateral damage in virtually every industry) but I'm not going to gamble by waiting the decade it'll take, if it comes to pass at all.

    TAHT'S WHY I'M PORTING MYSELF TO A SILICON BASED LIFE FORM! WHO'S WITH ME?

  • by MarkEst1973 (769601) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:57PM (#13793202)
    In the United States, business firms patent you!
  • -1 Flamebait (Score:4, Informative)

    by Stonehand (71085) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:57PM (#13793203) Homepage
    Submitter should have read the story.


    "While this does not quite boil down to [the patent holders] owning our genes ... these rights exclude us from using our genes for those purposes that are covered in the patent," she said.


    It's the application of the gene that's patented, not the gene itself.
    • So since one of the patents is the application of a gene in the context of growth hormones....

      Does that mean that by growing, I am infringing upon their patent? I should be paying royalties...
      • No; that'd be immediately invalidated by prior art. However, there may be novel uses of it that /are/ worth patenting -- e.g. if it is useful in new therapeutic methods, or for growing organs in vats.
        • Re:-1 Flamebait (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Se7enLC (714730) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:24PM (#13793492) Homepage Journal
          From the article, it sounds like a lot of these genes are being patented without actually having the use for it. The purpose behind patent law is to allow somebody to share their information with others without fear of losing intellectual ownership. These patents are more like staked claims on land. "I claim this gene for the growth hormone. I don't yet know HOW to do it, but I know this is the gene that will do it, so I'll just claim it before anybody else gets it". Simply knowing what a gene's purpose is should not be enough to grant a patent, IMO. They should be required to actually have information on HOW it is used to be able to patent it as a process.

          It's like saying "I patent rubber for use in wheels, because I know wheels should be made of rubber. I'll make no attempt at explaining how to make a wheel or how to use the rubber on the wheel, just that I want to collect money from anybody who says 'rubber' and 'wheel' in the same sentence"
    • The specific application (and its derivatives) mentioned in the patent application. This is probably what you meant by "the application", but I just wanted to make sure everyone else understood the added distinction.

      I can't believe how many people are talking about it as if they actually own patents on the genes themselves. A few of them were definitely funny, but there are way too many.


  • Hopefully they'll hurry up and patent the remaining genes. The more idiotic this becomes the shorter the lifespan of the USPTO will be.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Hey. It looks there are two genes ... GH1 and GH2.

    Some cut'n'pastes from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/ [nih.gov] ...

    Official Symbol: GH1 and Name: growth hormone 1 [Homo sapiens]
    Other Aliases: HGNC:4261, GH, GH-N, GHN, hGH-N
    Other Designations: pituitary growth hormone
    Chromosome: 17; Location: 17q24.2
    GeneID: 2688

    Official Symbol: GH2 and Nam
  • by Dark Paladin (116525) * <jhummel@johnhumm ... t minus caffeine> on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:58PM (#13793215) Homepage
    God, aka "The Supreme Being", "The Intelligent Designer" and "Don't Fuck With Me Pip-Squeaks" recently filed claim in federal court for patent infringement. He/She/It/They claim that patents regarding the human genome violate He/She/It/Their's intellectual property laws.

    "Good grief, you little monkeys are an annoying lot," God was quoted as saying. "Between this and that jackass Jack Thompson, I'm going to have to fire up another hurricane."

    Comments from the defendants were not returned at the time of this filing, as they had all turned to salt.
  • Hey, at least they'll expire. It would actually be nice to get them all patented right now, so that by 2025, 100% of the genome would be permanently patent-free.

    What would really suck would be if Congress decided to make patents into a permanent entitlement, they way they've been doing with copyrights.

    • exactly. you can expect congress to extend patents into virtual permanence. wouldn't be suprised if they make it apply retroactively too.
  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Friday October 14, 2005 @03:58PM (#13793220)
    You see, I've already patented the asshole... and these people are clearly violating my patent!
  • by Ced_Ex (789138)
    Could I patent just that pattern? Or does it have to be a complete gene?
  • fortune magazine (Score:3, Informative)

    by discordja (612393) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:00PM (#13793240)
    This article was up on /. a few weeks ago, but seeing this healine, it's probably good to relink for those interested

    The Law of Unintended Consequences [fortune.com]
  • genes or alleles? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by G4from128k (686170) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:01PM (#13793253)
    Does anyone know if these patents cover genes (a particular location on the DNA) or alleles (a specific variant that this found for some gene) [wikipedia.org]? If the patent covers a specific DNA sequence, then it is an allele. If it covers an allele, then the number of possible patents is much larger than the number of genes.
  • Will the Intelligent design crowd claim prior art?

    Who has the patent on the "stupid" gene, and can we get the FDA to ban it?

    So what will someone charge per hour now for me to get into their genes?

    Have Gene Simmons, Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder been reached for comment?

    Thank you, thank you. Remeber to tip the cocktail waitresses well, folks. They don't wear those skimpy outfits for nothing.

  • With luck, we might get all human genes patented in the next couple of years. That means that within 20 years, every human gene will be free game for companies to work with, develop treatments with etc. etc. Companies can even do their work now, and just hold it for 20 years. Expect a huge cornucopia of medical advancements in two decades!
  • So they've patented them. It will be expensive *if* someone manages to make something useful out of the knowledge in the next 20 years, unless we stupidly allow patent timeframes to be extended. Otherwise, they've more or less guaranteed that all of this will be public domain by the time we're actually roughly ready to be able to truly and efficiently use it.

    I will say that allowing them to patent it in the first place is pretty damn stupid. If they had done something new and innovative with it, then grudin
  • by cmaxx (7796)
    Patents, great, I'd love a good lawyer to shake one of them down:

    Lawyer: 'So, when and how did you invent this gene?'
    Holder: 'Uh, well, uh, we more sorta found it, y'know, in us.'
    Lawyer: 'Oh, and how did you find it?'
    Holder: 'Uh, with some techniques invented by someone else.'
    Lawyer: 'Oh right, and these techniques are only available to you, and not used by other experts in the field?'
    Holder: 'Uh, not really, almost everyone's doing it now.'
    Lawyer: 'Right..'

    What's a patent again?
  • I wonder whether most of the posters here are not looking at this in ways totally conditioned by software patents, where more often than not patents are granted on things that are obvious (e.g. wireless email) to a technically inclined individual. I don't know that gene patents are the same thing.

    First of all, I don't think anyone is suggesting (or any court would uphold) that you need a license to your own genes. Instead, what is patented is the use of the gene in commercial processes. For example, my

  • So... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:06PM (#13793309)
    So this means that every time I spank the monkey, I'm committing hundreds of millions of acts of patent violation?
  • by idontgno (624372)
    I'm a walking patent violation!
  • cause the government already owns our butts!
  • Imagine when they go from algorithm patents to look-and-feel copyrights!

    "Dear Mr. Smith,

    We regret to inform you physical appearance violates our copyright on olive-skinned (skincolor index: 984adb3e), dark-haired (haircolor index: 12231ec3), males (gender index: 1).

    Fortunately, you are able to lease the rights from us at a monthly rate. Please contact our office to discuss payment arrangements at your earliest convenience.

    Thank you,

    Big BioCorp"
  • Dear Human being,

    It has recently come to our attention that you are, merely by existing as a live human, infringing on several of our client's patents. Specifically, the production in your body, of human growth hormone, adrenaline, testosterone or estrogen, adenosine triphosphate, and insulin are all in violation of one or more patents and other intellectual property owned by our clients.

    If you don't immediately stop producing these compounds, we will pursue further legal remedies.
    These may involve tripe da
  • by starseeker (141897) * on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:11PM (#13793374) Homepage
    Making the US healthcare industry and supporting industries a private, for profit enterprise was an epic disaster, particularly in the department of research and IP. Companies will only pursue solutions to medical problems they think they will be able to have exclusive control over, in order to ensure they can profit from them. PROFIT??? This is people's HEALTH we are talking about here! Profit shouldn't even be part of this discussion. It's about the people you are trying to help, period. End of discussion. Motivation problem solved. The only questions should be 1) what holds the best promise for helping people 2) how do we produce it safely and 3) how do we produce it inexpensively. National ownership and public right to all medical information should be an absolute no brainer. Don't give them the excuse of needing to make up research costs to have high prices. Fund all medical research Federally, and base it solely on potential healing merit and educational benefit. Peoples' health should not have a price tag on it - people are the only reason a society exists at all. That's like saying its not cost effective to evacuate poor people from a potential disaster area, since they aren't important to the economy and are easily replaced. (Note to the hysterical - that's an example of an argument as wrong on as many levels as I could make it wrong, not an actual argument I'm making.) We don't stand for that, and I don't think we should stand for medical research and production costs being dictated by profit potential analysis.

    I have heard the arguments before that medical research moves faster because of the profit motive, but I don't believe it and would have to see hard evidence to believe it. Medical research is like anything else - individuals are motivated by a paycheck and perhaps the chances to help people/do interesting work. COMPANIES are motivated by profits, and I don't believe corporate thinking has been a net positive to the medical world in any sense. Quite the reverse, actually.

    I don't know how I could sleep nights knowing I ran a company that had (for example) decided to pursue less promising but potentially profitable cures instead of building off of public domain but very promising work. As a human being it would haunt me.

    Here are some examples of profit-motive-as-only-motive issues (I'm sure many more could be found in a few minutes):

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/acs/20050928/hl_acs/resear ch_near_standstill_for_childhood_cancer_drugs [yahoo.com]
    http://www.accessmed-msf.org/prod/publications.asp ?scntid=31720021644339&contenttype=PARA& [accessmed-msf.org]

    And now patenting genes. Great. In case there weren't enough issues out there slowing things up, we now add potential patent litigation as yet another reason not to pursue ideas. Because, thanks to the profit motive we know that barring enormous financial resources people will avoid these areas rather than risk having to fork out for patent licensing fees. What a messed up system. Personally I think the nation's system needs to be totally ripped out, all the way from the admistrative system to the drug companies, and redone with one and ONLY one focus - how can they help those who need it. Individuals working in the system can still be paid well - individual incentive is fine since it draws smart people, but the companies contribute nothing beneficial to the people needing help and should be cut out of the loop.
    • by TheSync (5291) on Friday October 14, 2005 @05:15PM (#13793952) Journal
      Why is profit important in health?

      Because it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Similarly, the doctor.
    • All drug development is for profit. All institutions need to bring in more resources than they consume (or the institution collapses). The difference between the value of the services they provide and the value of the resources they consume is profit. Natural selection applies to everything, so institutions that make a profit survive and thrive, institutions that don't fail and go away... natural selection leads to profit making organizations, no matter if they choose to call themselves profit-making or not
  • If they patented part of *my* gene after my date of birth I'm sueing!

    50 billion to me!
  • by Anonymous Meoward (665631) on Friday October 14, 2005 @04:33PM (#13793588)
    Intellectual Property Division
    Legal Department
    Megagencorp Inc.
    2525 Prometheus Way
    Cuperfremont, CA 94949-4949

    Dear Mr. Meoward,

    It has come to our attention that you and your spouse, Mrs. Kitty Meoward,
    are actively attempting, through crude yet effective (and somewhat noisy)
    means, to duplicate the technology of our patent #3,456,789, also known
    as "Marker NH54B3". We also understand that you and Mrs. Meoward use
    every available opportunity to increase the probability of subverting our
    intellectual property. We are not amused.

    Should your efforts result in successful duplication, we will demand licensing
    royalties for the duration of the new prototype (heretofore described as
    "the Progeny"). We will demand a flat fee for sharing of this work under
    license; however, this fee will increase as the Progeny reaches an age of
    viable replication (a.k.a. "puberty"), during which it may actively seek out
    attempts at willful replication in the backseats of cars.

    We therefore demand that you cease and desist from this activity until
    you can prove that sufficient safeguards are in place either 1) to guarantee
    this fee during the lifetime of the Progeny, or 2) to keep the Progeny from
    ever existing (please submit all receipts to this department).

    Thank you for your attention to this matter.

    Sincerely,
  • by Guppy06 (410832) on Friday October 14, 2005 @05:00PM (#13793836)
    Where were all the "Intelligent Design" Republicans during this? If there's a designer, then it's all prior art, so why isn't the GOP stepping up to the plate on this?
  • by TheSync (5291) on Friday October 14, 2005 @05:24PM (#13794028) Journal
    Here is an example of a "Gene Patent" Nucleotide sequences which code for the menE gene, United States Patent 6946271 [freepatentsonline.com].

    It really looks like most of the claims are about the sequence, not any particular utility for it! Of course, it does say what the proteins that the sequence codes for is and does.
  • by Max Nugget (581772) on Friday October 14, 2005 @08:27PM (#13795088)
    I know it's easy to call "evil" on the bioengineering firms that are filing these patents, but this issue is much more shades-of-grey than that.

    These companies are basically patenting roadmaps for the different genes in human DNA. The research involved in creating one of these roadmaps is VERY expensive. Tremendous medical progress will result from having these roadmaps, and that progress will benefit everyone, but someone has to make the big investments first to get us there. Just as we're seeing with space travel, private industry is more likely to fit the bill for this kind of "long road to profit" work than the federal government is.

    Now, I'm not completely in agreement with the idea of being able to patent these roadmaps, but you can't have a debate on this without examining the alternatives:

    1) If the populace were more enthusiastic about making serious bioengineering progress, the government could perhaps spend more money on this research, resulting in more of these roadmaps being public domain right off the bat, and thus allowing more private companies to compete with products based on those roadmaps. On the other hand, making the roadmaps might be expensive, but so is everything in the business plan that follows it. So, increased potential competition might actually discourage competition, though I'm sure in the end supply-and-demand guarantees that someone will take the plunge and try to profit from making next-generation genomics-derived products and services, so maybe my point here isn't valid.

    2) I'm not a bioengineering expert, but it seems to me that trade secrets would be more appropriate than patents here. Company X spent $50 million figuring out a gene? OK, well, let them keep the results to themselves, they can release products based off of it, and the only people they'll have to worry about competing with are the other ones who independently spent $50 million to figure out that same information. This seems a more fair compromise, rather than demanding full exclusivity. I am, of course, assuming that it's easy to keep this information secret while simultaneously releasing products derived from it, and, not being an expert in the field, I don't know if this is possible or not.

    3) On the other hand, using patents has its advantages to the public good. Firstly, given the still-limited spending on research into this area, it *is* somewhat wasteful for multiple companies to simultaneously invent the same wheel, when there are so many other wheels companies could be inventing at this very opportune point in time. So, in other words, there's SO MANY opportunties opened up by biotech, genomics, nanotech, etc, that we might be better off encouraging companies not to compete for the time being. There's enough "killer apps" for everyone, in this case.

    4) Another advantage of patents to the public good: After 20 years, when the patents expire, the expensive-to-produce roadmaps are both freely available AND public domain, so anyone can obtain and make use of them. By contrast, if companies went the trade secret route, there's no real motivation to ever release the roadmaps to the public domain at all, nevermind in as little as 20 years.

    Of course, none of these points of view are perfect. But I present them simply because I don't think the knee-jerk "patents are evil, patenting human genomes is ESPECIALLY evil" applies here. Given the various possibilities, I think the patent situation is one of the better ones. Of course, it would be better if one company didn't own such a large percentage of the patents.

    Certainly I can't think of any entirely perfect way for all this to unfold, but however it unfolds, the benefits to come from all of this will be unfathomable. Really it's just a question of

    1) How QUICKLY will progress in these fields be made?

    and

    2) How long will it take to trickle down and become affordable to the masses?

You can't have everything... where would you put it? -- Steven Wright

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