Supreme Court's gene patent ruling was overdue

  • Article by: Star Tribune Editorial Board , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2013 - 9:20 AM

Ending monopolies on genes, court decision benefits science, health.

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alansonJun. 20, 13 6:33 AM

Sometimes we regret getting what we wish for, and that could well be the case with this Supreme Court decision that appears to cover not just human genes, but all genes occurring in nature. Patents are designed to protect intellectual property for a limited term of 17 years in exchange for public disclosure of information. To the extent that researchers are incentivized to hide their discoveries, or disincentivized from making them in the first place, the public can be the loser over the long haul. That's why we have a patent system in the first place. The importance of these patents is well illustrated in the legal battles surrounding the patentability of taq polymerase, a bacterial enzyme discovered in bacteria that survive in Yellowstone Park hot springs and that became foundational to gene isolating and gene splicing technologies. The point is, the scope of the Supreme Court decision applies to an enormous universe of uncounted billions of genes. The identification of a relatively small number of these will be vital to the future of fields that include, but extend well beyond, medical science. This is a needle in the haystack search problem that requires significant upfront investment. At the dawn of genomic science we may be swapping a short term gain for a much greater long term loss. We should reconsider patent protection for such discoveries, perhaps shortening or eliminating this protection for some human genes, but retaining it for most genes, and especially for non-human genes.

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