Patent nonsense

Last month’s publication of the human genome has left us with more questions than answers. Scientists now say that the smaller than expected number of genes—only 30,000 or so rather than the 100,000 often predicted—means there are levels of complexity to the genetic coding which will take decades to understand.

Craig Venter, founder of the company Celera, which performed its own human genome sequencing, declared that this finding throws “genetic determinism” out the window. If this smaller gene count codes for the hundreds of thousands of different molecules which allow the human organism to develop and function, then each gene must perform multiple coding functions, with still unknown signals and methods by which the genes do their work.

While other scientists don’t disagree with Venter’s math, many respected scientists privately say that Venter has overstated the significance of this long-suspected complexity. They state that his motive in publicly devaluing the genetic code is to increase the stock value of Celera.

This brings us to the most significant complexity of all: How are we to assess interpretations of the new genomics and understand whether the directions of future research are widely beneficial when every molecule is now invested with commercial patent value?

There is accumulating evidence that the patenting system, which is supposed to spur discovery, is having the opposite effect. Breast cancer researchers recently reported halting their work after being served with a cease and desist order by a company holding the patent on a gene linked to breast cancer. An American College of Medical Genetics survey indicates that 25 percent of its members discontinued offering some genetic tests because of patenting concerns.

Locally, we are witnessing part of this genetic gold rush. The University of California at Davis has dramatically restructured its research and funding orientation, directing its energies more aggressively than ever toward biotechnology corporate collaborations and patentable products. The rush for profits in the life sciences has reached such a pitch that the UC system has signed a deal for access to Celera’s genomic database while refusing to disclose the details.

UC Davis officials like to call this “a vision.” But is this really the right context for basic research? What are the restrictions on researchers using Celera data? Will graduate studies now be infused with the marketing spirit? What will this further campus corporatization mean for research which may not result in patented products?

There currently exists neither forum nor method for asking such questions. But California and U.S. taxpayers, who are funding the overwhelming portion of life science researches, should find a means to do so and bring the complexities of democracy, justice and global public health priorities to the emerging genomic sciences.