Leading Article: A welcome step to genetic openness

ON THE whole, copyright and patenting are good ways to reward and protect the intellectual effort required to make works of art or inventions that better the condition of humankind. However, the Human Genome Project, which maps the genetic blueprint of our species, creates a situation in which the status of patenting is unclear.

Ten large drug companies and five leading genetics research centres have announced that they will publish their findings on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs are the genetic differences that may offer a clue, for example, to why some people develop lung cancer while others can smoke 20 cigarettes a day into their nineties.

The discovery of SNPs is a profitable business. Patents on the locations of these so-called genetic signposts - and the diseases to which they are linked - can lead to a sparkling income for the discoverer. Such research is often undertaken by small firms that hope to sell patent rights to larger firms, which then develop the drugs that take advantage of these discoveries. The big drug companies fear that the smaller firms can restrict their exploration of this area of commercial activity, and want to publish SNP maps to prevent anyone from patenting them.

Centres of medical excellence want to publish the locations of these signposts on the genes so that they can pursue their research without having to pay crippling fees to research companies.

It is a sign of the future importance of medical genetics that drug companies, notoriously secretive, are prepared to share information. They feel that there is more to gain from open access to data than there is to lose by sharing their knowledge with competitors.

Once the information is freely available, the large pharmaceutical companies can set about doing what they are best at - ie developing and marketing medicines.

The Human Genome Project is an exception to the rule of the excellence of patenting. Governments should have recognised this fact some time ago and international treaties should have established the area as an endeavour that is outside the normal rules. It is a welcome action, if self-interested on the part of the large companies, to make gene know-how free for all.