Human Genes Should Not be Patented, Koepsell Says

March 17, 2009

The patenting of specific human genes constitutes a threat to basic science and should not be allowed, a legal scholar and ethicist said at the Law School on Friday.

Delft University of Technology Professor David Koepsell

Humans "have only 30,000 genes, so the fact that there are now 8,000 of those genes or more that are patented is a significant number," David Koepsell said during a talk sponsored by the Health Law Association.

The human genome continues to be a subject of interest as more and more research shows that people metabolize drugs differently based on their individual genetic makeup, he said.

In 1990, work on the international Human Genome Project began with the aim of mapping the human genome. In 1998, a former University of Buffalo professor founded the private company Celera, which became a private competitor to the public Human Genome Project, said Koepsell, who is a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Craig Venter, Celera's founder, and other scientists working for the company developed a new technology for the rapid sequencing of genes. Without this process, rapid sequencing was a tedious process done by hand in laboratories, Koepsell said.

Celera sold this technology to the Human Genome Project and also began working on mapping the parts of the human genome that the Human Genome Project had not already completed, creating what Koepsell called a race between the public and private groups.

Celera's shareholders pushed for more profit than what it was making selling its rapid-sequencing technology, Koepsell said. After examining the existing case law, attorneys at Celera decided that the company could begin patenting the genes that its scientists discovered. Since then, more than 8,000 genes have been issued to various corporations, Koepsell said.

Koepsell pointed out several problems with these patented genes, which is the subject of his new book, "Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes" It impedes scientific research, which requires that scientists replicate the gene they wish to study, he said. If a gene a scientist is studying is patented, replicating the gene violates the patent.

Koepsell also argued that genes should not be patentable in the first place because of the distinction between inventions and laws of nature. Isaac Newton could not have patented the law of gravity because it is a law of nature, he said. Newton discovered the law of gravity; he did not invent it.

"Laws of patent are meant to be used to protect inventions things that engineers are doing not things that scientist discover," Koepsell said.

He said Celera "justly deserves" a patent for its rapid-sequencing technology, but because they are not inventing the genes, only discovering them, they should not be able to patent the genes.

"These genes have existed for a long time, and you and I have no possessor right to them," Koepsell said. "Not only that — we couldn't logically try to protect them against other people's possession."

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