The private market targets our genes

Posted: Tuesday, March 07, 2000

I have to tip my cap to Donna MacLean. The British poet and waitress walked into a U.K patent office and filed an application for a very unusual invention: ``Myself.''

``It has taken 30 years of hard labour for me to discover and invent myself,'' she wrote, ``and now I wish to protect my invention from unauthorised exploitation, genetic or otherwise.''

Ms. MacLean was motivated by a sense of humor and a sense of outrage. It seems she'd been reading about companies trying to patent genes and decided she'd better hang on to her own private property.

Hers is more of a statement than a solution; it's better performance art than patent law. But she's onto something.

We are now close to deciphering all the human genes. Scientists are expected to complete sequencing the three billion units that make up our DNA by the end of the year.

Most of these three billion bits are, I hate to say, pretty worthless, no matter how attractively they may be arranged in Ms. MacLean. We share 30 percent of our genes with lettuce.

But some genes may hold secrets that cure cancer, Alzheimer's, and other scourges of our genetic inheritance. So the Human Genome Project is putting sequences into the public venue - the Internet - for all researchers as fast as they can.

Meanwhile, a handful of biotech companies like Celera, run by the flamboyant J. Craig Venter, are racing to stake a private claim on whole stretches of DNA. The president of Incyte has bragged that whoever wins the patenting race will become the ``eBay for genes.'' They can offer them for commercial use to the highest bidder.

The gold rush for patents on every gene, whether it has a known use or not, has gotten the scientific community and at least one poet-waitress worried.

It's not just the philosophical questions - Who Owns My Body? Who Owns the Entire Genetic Repository of the Human Species? - that spook people. (Let's remember that eBay was just asked to auction off a human soul.) There is also a question about the public good. What's the best, fairest, fastest way to go from mapping the human genome to curing human disease?

There is something to be said for patenting. In theory, it gives private companies the incentives to get the medicine to the marketplace. Scientists may be satisfied with Nobel Prizes, but stockholders want returns.

On the other hand, patenting can inhibit progress by making it prohibitively expensive. The marketplace does a dicey job of regulating medicine. Just compare the falling cost of a Palm Pilot and rising cost of medicine.

When can patenting help and when can it hurt? At the moment, Ellen Clayton, director of Vanderbilt's Genetics and Health Policy Center expresses a view shared by many that ``patents are being awarded for too little intellectual work.''

Consider the current feud over rights to a gene that may be important in AIDS therapy. A group of AIDS researchers discovered a promising use for CCR5. But a biotech company that did little more than list the letters and number on the code, already had a patent on its commercial development.

It was, rued researcher Robert Gallo, as if the biotech company said, ``I found a fungus, therefore I should get credit for penicillin.''

The questions being raised now are: Should the people - or even the computer - doing the relatively routine work of identifying a gene get to be the landlord charging whatever the market will bear? Or should that property go to the person who figures out what to do with it?

Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, uses a toll booth analogy. ``Medical research is a road to discovery,'' he says. You start out on a bumpy path with a lot of ruts, wrong turns and dead ends. You get along far enough until you see a clear way to turn knowledge into a product. ``At that point it's OK to have a toll. You need to do the upkeep on the road. The patent maintains the road.''

But if the tolls start piling up too early, too often and too expensively, nobody will take that road. ``The tendency in biotechnology has been to put the toll booths earlier and earlier,'' says Collins. Business is hogging the freeway.

Patent law and the Patent Office were set up long before anyone heard of DNA. Now the whole blueprint is in play.

In France, you can't patent genes at all. In Britain, our gal Donna is trying to get a poetic grip on ``myself.'' Before someone corners the American market on chromosomes, we better protect public access to a nice, clean, affordable set of genes.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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