Genomics and Intellectual Property: Considering Alternatives to Traditional Patenting

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In recent years, significant issues have been raised about the impacts of patenting practices in genomics. Specifically, critics have voiced concern about the possibility of creating an anti-commons where upstream--or early stage--genomic research is patented. (1) Others have suggested that the net effect of wide-scale patenting is to create patent thickets, wherein awareness and access to patents become an issue. (2) Still others point to the fact that undue concern with patenting and property by practitioners of basic research is contrary to the culture of the scientific community. (3) Some have identified the Myriad Genetics case as emblematic of the negative result for patients (4) (and health care systems) when basic genetic information is protected by patents. Other issues exist as well, such as the applicability of proprietary rights to the type of information generated by genomics research, including sequencing data and databases. (5)

The degree, extent, and even existence of these issues as significant problems for science and society are the subject of ongoing debate. (6) As the Intellectual Property Policy and Research Group (IPPRG) at the W. Maurice Center for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia, we are working to better understand the potential of different alternatives specifically for upstream genomics research. (7) Thus far, we have focused our efforts on patent pools (8) and open source (OS)-like licensing (9).

With respect to these alternatives, we propose to answer the following questions: Do these alternative approaches address the issues of anti-commons, patent thickets and open science norms, as noted above? In what circumstances and for which specific characteristics might patent pools or OS-like licensing be appropriate? Do alternative upstream regimes create new issues for downstream genomics research and commercialization? Are alternative IP regimes realistic options that are attractive to researchers, academic institutions, industry, policy-makers, or the public?

In an attempt to foster robust discussion of these issues and to begin to test our interim answers to these questions, we held a workshop in March 2007 where we convened a small group of scientists, scholars, legal practitioners and industry representatives. (10) Our discussions there suggest that there is a growing interest in the potential benefits of alternative IP mechanisms, even while the debate over open source and patent pools for genomics continues. Further, there is recognition that utilization of these alternative IP regimes would impact the development of downstream health products and that any such impacts need to be better understood. These interim findings are discussed in more detail here in the interest of continuing to promote further understanding of how and where alternative IP might be applicable to upstream genomics research.

A. Open source/Open science continues to be debated as a model for genomics.

The debate over OS-like models for genomics continues at the granular level of specific research projects. Our efforts at the IPPRG, for example, are focused on the GE (3) LS portion of the "Dissecting Gene Expression Networks in Mammalian Organogenesis Project" (the MORGEN project). MORGEN is a study mapping organogenesis and gene expression of the mouse genome. It is an upstream research project which generates experimental results and bioinformatic tools related to organogenesis, drug discovery, and stem cells. Our research suggests that some forms of open source may be suitable for MORGEN's research results - specifically the publication of some data and of bioinformatics software. The latter is a candidate because it is the most analogous to OS uses in Information Technology. (11) For example, MORGEN implemented a license based on an open source philosophy known as a Creative Commons license. …

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