The biotechnology company Myriad Genetics holds US and European patents on the breast cancer risk genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 and sells a diagnostic test based on these. The ethics, legality and scientific validity of these patents have been extensively debated, from the courts to the blogosphere, and on April 15th 2013, this topic is back in the limelight as the Supreme Court considers a legal challenge on the case.
Many other companies also hold gene patents, and the implications and controversies are wide-ranging. For example, they touch upon basic science – whether isolated DNA fragments are found as part of normal cellular and bodily processes and thus not patentable, as recently argued by Eric Lander, or whether genes can be defined as an ‘invention’, as discussed by Steven Salzberg. On another level, whether patenting drives scientific innovation and maximizes impact, or whether it prevents the ‘open science’ model of data sharing which could equally drive such change, debated by Tim Caulfield and colleagues. There are many other arguments for and against, and professional organisations and illustrious academics have added their thoughts to the debate (see useful overviews here). The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, on the other hand, argue that the upcoming case should not consider these wide-ranging questions but should be confined to the specific points of the Myriad patent.
Jeffrey Rosenfeld and Christopher Mason tackle the issue of sequence patents from a bioinformatics perspective in an article recently published in Genome Medicine. They compared sequences present in patent claims (from 15 nucleotides to the full length) against the human genome, and found multiple matches in all cases. They estimate that 41% of human genes are covered by long sequence patents. This builds upon a previous study calculating that 18% of human genes were patented, later challenged for including patents where gene sequences were not part of the claim. However, another study looking at a smaller sample size also encountered non-specificity. Although the wording of Myriad’s claim refers only to sequences from the BRCA genes, non-specificity of patented sequences raises questions about gene patenting; a short isolated DNA from a patented gene could be indistinguishable from an isolated DNA from another part of the genome.
With this in mind, it seems like a good time to discuss this topic further. So, what are your views on gene patenting? For a chance to have your say, join Genome Medicine, author Christopher Mason, and others for a one-hour twitter chat on Wednesday 27 March at 2pm UK time (10am EST). The twitter chat will use the hashtag #GMpatents, and be moderated from the @GenomeMedicine account.
The questions we’ll be discussing during the chat are:
- What is an ‘isolated DNA’ ? How scientifically valid is this definition?
- Should genes be patented at all, and if so under what conditions?
- Does gene patenting drive scientific impact, or impede research?
- What is the impact of DNA patenting on other areas of orthogonal research, like epigenomics or transcriptomics?
- What are the medical and clinical implications if the Supreme Court ruling is successfully challenged ?
- Would you start testing BRCA1 or other patented genes in your lab if the patents are invalidated?
Please join us to share your views on these topics, and use the hashtag #GMpatents in all tweets. If your question or comment is directed at a specific individual, include their @name at the start of your tweet.
We look forward to your participation! If you’re unable to join us for the chat, please feel free to tweet your comments to @GenomeMedicine with the #GMpatents hashtag beforehand. An edited summary of the twitter chat will be published at Storify soon after the session.
And finally, if this topic is of interest to you, why not check out a recent article by Lane Baldwin and Robert Cook-Deegan, also in Genome Medicine, looking at why Myriad in particular arouses such intense controversy.