Patenting genes can be the best way to help us all

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The Independent Online

Patenting "life", or at least gene sequences, has been widely criticised and equally widely misunderstood. Some say it is morally repugnant, others argue that it allows only the rich to benefit from the fruits of nature. A more realistic criticism is that patenting can be too broadly applied, stifling innovation by discouraging others from working in an area already tied up in patents.

Patenting "life", or at least gene sequences, has been widely criticised and equally widely misunderstood. Some say it is morally repugnant, others argue that it allows only the rich to benefit from the fruits of nature. A more realistic criticism is that patenting can be too broadly applied, stifling innovation by discouraging others from working in an area already tied up in patents.

The decision of Rosgen - the British licensee of two important breast cancer tests - not to charge royalties to the National Health Service provides an example of how such fears can be abated. Rather than inhibit the use of the test by public-sector doctors, the Rosgen aims to recoup its profits by offering a private-sector service.

This is a good precedent for others to follow. It allows innovators to profit from their discoveries but at the same time accepts that there is a public duty to ensure that as many people as possible have access to new, potentially life-saving inventions.

There are many examples of how patenting has enabled natural substances to be exploited to everyone's advantage. Take for instance the surprising connection between an obscure microbe that inhabits the hot springs of Iceland and the conviction of a murderer more than 20 years after he committed his crime. A naturally occurring enzyme used by the microbe has unique properties that enable it to be used in a revolutionary forensic technique for detecting and analysing minute quantities of DNA left at the scene of an old crime. It is also unlikely that this discovery would have led anywhere at all had it not been for the ability of its inventors to patent and therefore protect their intellectual effort.

Patenting is the internationally recognised method of ensuring that resourcefulness and hard work is protected against copying. Inventors, and the companies who sponsor them, need such protection just as much as a writer or musician needs to be protected against copyright infringement, which in its worst forms amounts to simple theft of someone's ideas.

Biotechnology has had a bad press in recent times, epitomised by the public outrage over plans to grow genetically modified crops in Britain. The industry can also be criticised for attempting to use the patenting process too broadly. Applying for patents on mere gene sequences in the hope that one day they may prove to be of some value is ethically dubious. American and European patent offices should now make it clear that such patents will no longer be granted.

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