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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
Call for tighter rules on DNA patents
The rules on granting patents for human genes should be much tighter, says a leading panel of UK bioethicists.

Patents protect discoveries and inventions from being exploited by other people, but the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says too many patents are being issued for discoveries which are not particularly inventive.

The discussion paper recommends a number of significant changes to the way that patents are granted involving genetic material.


The patent system is in danger of not achieving its main goal - to stimulate innovation for the public good

Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics
It questions whether the current patent system is achieving its goals: the stimulation of innovation for the public good, and the rewarding of people for useful inventions.

The Nuffield Council recommends that DNA sequences should satisfy the strict criteria of being novel, inventive and useful, before they are considered for patent.

This move is intended to safeguard the interests of the inventor as well as the interests of the public, it says.

The race to patent

A patent is an exclusive right over an invention, which means that anybody using the invention within a set time limit must pay the inventor. Patents of DNA sequences last for 20 years. And, at present, they are doled out rather easily.

Since the sequencing of the human genome, companies have been rushing to patent genes; even though they often do not know what the genes do, or what value they may have in the future.

The race is frantic because if it strikes lucky, and the patented gene turns out to be useful within 20 years, the company stands to make a lot of money. But, in this case, what is good news for commercial companies may be bad news for patients, says the council.

Discovering how a new gene might help people is often lower on the list of priorities than patenting it fast, and finding more new sequences to patent.

Under the current system, the report's authors fear, diagnostic tests and medicines could become unaffordable or unavailable, the development of new ones might be slowed down and research could be inhibited.

"We are concerned that, for patents involving DNA, the patent system is in danger of not achieving its main goal - to stimulate innovation for the public good," said Dr Sandy Thomas, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Finding the balance

The Nuffield Council's recommendations reflect an attempt to encourage research while safeguarding the interests of patients.

Under the new system it proposes, those applying for patents must be able to detail what a gene does and how it is useful. In other words, research into the application of DNA sequences, which directly benefits patients, will be rewarded.

The report's authors recognise that the patent system should reward people for useful ideas and inventions but argue that, in the case of DNA sequences, the balance is currently too firmly in favour of the claimant.

"One problem which we considered is the fact that one gene often gives rise to more than one product," comments Dr Thomas.

"This means that it is quite common to find an entirely new use for a DNA sequence after it has been patented.

"If a patent protects all the uses of a sequence, this can give extensive, and in our view unjustified, rewards to the original researcher."

See also:

18 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
30 May 00 | Human genome
27 Oct 99 | Science/Nature
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