The Patenting of Human Genes Must Be Stopped

Craig Venter is back in the news. The entrepreneurial geneticist recently announced he has created a new form of synthetic life. The new microbe, which thrives and replicates with only a man-made genome, paves the way for a world full of organisms that are built to order rather than evolved.

The technique, reported in the peer-reviewed journal Science, required 20 scientists, ten years and $USD40 million to develop. ExxonMobil, however, has already placed an order with the J Craig Venter Institute for an algae that can convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into fuel, taking estimates of value into the trillions.

So far, concerns about the development by ethicists and religionists have been predictable, and largely miss the point. Yes, there are risks the organism could jump the lab, but Venter has inserted what he says are fail-safe mechanisms into the microbe to render it harmless in the outside world. All scientific inquiry entails some risk. The question is whether those risks can be managed and are worth taking given the possible benefits.

It is also true that Venter’s contribution allows humans to play God, but surely this is what humans have long sought to do. How else can we understand humankind’s attempts to predict earthquakes or vaccinate against diseases than a spirited attempt to control and influence the vagaries of the natural – or God given – world?

The real problems posed by the Venter development are the stale legal and policy frameworks governing the world into which it’s been birthed. Venter makes much of the “societal good” he believes will come of what he describes as “one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers”. He says he is concerned that the applications of his work are used “for the benefit of all”.

Maybe. But in a world where key features of modern day patent law date back to the 1600’s, and permit individuals or corporations to lock up scientific knowledge as a source of private profit, consideration of the public good remains optional.

Ventor’s history suggests a keen interest in making knowledge critical to public health private intellectual property. His man-made microbe contains watermarks, five amino acid codes, that include quotations, an email address and the names of people involved in the £30million project (Dr Frankenstein not included).

In the 1990s, his former company Celera Genomics raced against a publicly funded project to sequence the human genome. At the time, he had already applied to control the intellectual rights on more than 300 genes.

Luckily, he lost. In 2000 then-US President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair jointly announced that an international consortium working cooperatively and funded by public monies had produced a rough draft of the genome, which a White House press release said would “lead to new ways to prevent, diagnose, treat and cure disease”.

But we may not be so lucky next time, and this is the point. New areas of science like genomics have long been outpacing the laws and policies that seek to govern them. Legislators and regulators urgently need to catch up.

Our view is that where existing research and intellectual property frameworks are adequate to ensure that the building blocks of life – whether evolved or created-remain in public hands, well and good.

But where such frameworks tilt towards handing any individual or corporation sole ownership of knowledge, knowledge that belongs to and can be used to benefit all of us, we have a problem. A problem most recently seen in the shut down of research critical to discovering the cures for diseases like autism, brain cancer and neurological disease by StemCells Inc on the grounds that the researcher was using a technique he had helped develop but they had patented.

Patents over genes, the building blocks of life or what Venter calls ‘DNA computer code,’ are wrong. They are wrong in moral and in practical terms. They are wrong because they allow individuals or corporations to exclusively control information that belongs to all of us, and wrong because their patents discourage scientific progress or reserve its benefits to those who can pay.

This view is shared by Nobel prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and John Sulston, who recently argued in The Wall Street Journal that gene patents, “not only prevent the use of knowledge in ways that would most benefit society, they may even impede scientific progress. Every scientific advance is built on those that came before it. There is still a great deal to learn about our genes, particularly how they contribute to disease. Gene patents inhibit access to the most basic information”.

Venter’s synthetic life form only adds weight to the passionate claims from medical associations, geneticists, patients and academics have been making for years that the patenting of human genes is unproductive and unfair and must be stopped.

Next month a long-awaited report from the Australian Senate into the impact of the granting of patents over human and microbial genes will be handed down. Australian lawmakers must not miss this critical opportunity to ensure that this country’s regulatory framework places the health and wellbeing of the Australian people and Australian environment above private profit.

Scientific knowledge of evolved and created life must remain in public hands.

By Leslie Cannold and Luigi Palombi

Professor Luigi Palombi is Director of the Genetic Sequence Right Project at the Australian National University and author of Gene Cartels.

Publication history

The patenting of human genes must be stopped  ABC - The Drum