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02 December 1997

Gene Patenting: piracy or progress?

John Gillott, co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason, looks at the brouhaha surrounding gene patenting

The UK Government has just endorsed the EC Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions, which now looks certain to become law some time next year. The Directive lays out, in very broad terms, the criterion for patentability in the field of biotechnology. It allows genetically modified animals to be patented (such as mice engineered to develop cancer and other novelties such as Dolly, the cloned sheep). It also allows gene sequences, isolated from the human body but substantially unchanged from their natural state, to be patented. The Directive has been vigorously opposed by environmental campaigners, who say it is an aspect of the 'race to commodify life' which amounts to 'biopiracy'. Some scientists have also expressed concern. They argue that gene patenting is a nonsense because genes are discoveries not inventions; and what is more, discoveries that are increasingly routine. The points raised by scientific critics of gene patenting warrant further discussion. But to get to those it is first necessary to clear away the rubbish peddled by the environmentalists.

The Directive will not in fact change practice a great deal: patenting of modified plants, animals and isolated gene sequences is already the norm in Europe as it is in the USA. The critics know this, yet constantly go on as if the Directive is about to allow something terrible that has never happened before. And while it is the case that the secrecy associated with patenting has a detrimental impact upon research, environmentalists also exaggerate the harmful effects of gene patenting: in practice data is shared and used by governments, industry and academics haggling over the prices they charge each other for the bits of information they hold in this area as in others. If one company develops a monopoly on something vital to the work of many others, they will probably want to make enormous sums of money marketing it. If they choose to try to monopolise it and not sell, governments can step in and force their hand. In reality environmentalists are trying to opportunistically latch on to suspicions of commercial practices and to some real problems in relation to research in order to further their aim of questioning biotechnology per se. Their real objection is to human manipulation of nature.

Putting the arguments of the Greens to one side, there are however serious issues to discuss in relation to gene patenting. Industry, governments and academic associations have all signed up to the Directive. But there are tensions over how broad patents should be and over whether genes should be easily patented. The leading industrial players have argued for the strongest possible interpretation of the Directive; in the USA many of these companies are trying to patent not just genes but also fragments of genes and information which might provide clues to functional genes. In its own terms, this is clearly ridiculous as genes are discoveries, not inventions. But what is perhaps more noteworthy about this is the lack of confidence this reveals about the companies' own declared goal to move beyond simple gene isolation to the generation of new medicines based on an understanding of gene function. If industry takes this seriously, it shouldn't need gene-sequence patenting as the real hard work and money will be at the next level up from the gene in drug design related to an understanding of gene function.

John Gillott is one of the contributors to 'Against Nature', Channel 4's controversial new series on environmentalism. Forthcoming programmes include:

The Myth of Too Many, 20:00 BST Sunday 7 December
Dr Satan's Robot, 20:00 BST Sunday 14 December
Transcripts of the three programmes in the series and other information is available from the Channel 4 website.

Gillott's book, Science and the Retreat from Reason, is available from the Bookstore on this site.

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