Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Genetic Information Does Not Belong in Patent Office

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Genetic Information Does Not Belong in Patent Office

Article excerpt

IT'S a good thing Isaac Newton didn't have a lawyer. He might have tried to patent his law of gravity.

That sounds silly. But is it any sillier than the persistent effort of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) to patent parts of the human genome? That's the genetic information within cells that specifies the body's development, form, and function.

Research biologists who want to keep the flow of basic research information open and unrestricted say "no, they're equally silly." But NIH officials claim a crucial distinction between a basic natural law and the equally basic natural human genetic code. The former is a cosmic heritage that no one can "own." The latter contains commercially valuable information that can be obtained only through proprietary research.

In short, there's a lot of money to be made by those who can develop products - especially medicines - based on the properties of specific human genes. NIH says it is filing for patents to protect the interests of American industry and encourage development of such products.

The trouble is NIH isn't trying to patent specific genes it has identified and whose functions it has defined. It is trying to patent so-called genetic markers that delineate specific portions of the genome whose function and potential usefulness is unknown. It's like a sketchy map with landmarks such as a distinctive hill or cliff that tells you how to find specific areas within territory that has yet to be fully explored.

In biochemical terms, these genetic markers are fragments of DNA molecules. Genetic information is encoded in the DNA structure. It can take a sequence of thousands of DNA subunits to encode a single gene. However, the marker that specifies where that gene is located along the DNA molecule typically contains a sequence of only about 400 of these molecular building blocks. …

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