Dr. John E. Sulston
Dr. John Sulston


Dr. John E. Sulston, the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine, has come out strongly against gene patents because they slow the pace of scientific advance.

Sulston was a principal player in the Human Genome Project to decode the human genome. "I was amazed at the tacit acceptance by some that this information could and should be privatized," he said. "The product was not an invention: a genome sequence is a clear-cut case of public domain material." Since that first brush, Sulston has seen the negative impact patents can have on research.

"There are many anecdotal accounts of research being abandoned because of danger of patent infringement (patent blocks), and of difficulties in arranging licenses because of multiple overlapping patents (patent thickets). Studies should eventually show us the real extent of the problem, but most researchers are reportedly unaware of any threat from third-party patents, even when they have been warned of such by their institutions," said Dr. Sulston.

Once a gene patent is granted, it is difficult to invalidate. Dr. Sulston points out, "granting patents is relatively cheap, but opposing them is very costly and beyond the means of non-profit organizations."

Why are gene sequences so vital to have in the public domain? In an August 2003 article, Dr. Sulston wrote:

"From the point of view of scientific research, the chief reason is that genome sequences are about as basic as you can get in terms of biological information. Of no practical use in themselves, they provide fundamental knowledge that has to be interpreted and employed-a tool for future research…. Private sequence databases are…of limited value…. The consequence of dependence on private databases for fundamental information would be a severe curtailment of scientific networks."

Even Dr. Sulston's alma mater, Cambridge University, drew his criticism when it attempted to reform its policies and move away from the free exchange of information. In late 2005, the University made a move to gain intellectual property rights over its research discoveries instead of allowing the academics to freely share their information.

"I think academics should be encouraged to place their findings in the public domain as much as possible," said Dr. Sulston, "[b]ut the document on the reforms [at Cambridge] warns academics against freely publishing their work. The mark of a good university, rather than a money-grabbing institution, is one that realizes that lecture materials and research should be in the public domain."

While Dr. Sulston is a staunch advocate of sharing genomic research, he does not believe all life form patents are bad. "There is currently a big gap between those who want to patent entire micro-organisms, and people who feel that life should not be patented under any circumstances," said Dr. Sulston, "Current patent practices have allowed excessively broad claims on the strength of a limited modification…. Neither of these extremes makes sense." In his view, "a novel gene that had been synthesized from scratch, and served a useful purpose, could legitimately be considered [for a patent]."

"Twenty years ago it seemed possible that common sense would prevail, and that a better balance between public and private domains would emerge spontaneously. This is not happening," said Dr. Sulston. But he thinks there is hope to change. "[W]e need to both strengthen the public domain and make use of intermediate licensing methods. Exclusive rights patents confer too much power on the holder, and a system of remuneration-based patents…may be valuable."

"Finally," he said, "we should pursue international commitment to better handling of intellectual property in biomedical research and development."

Related Articles

Andrew Brown, "Owning Ideas: The Boom in the Intellectual Property Market will not Reap Rewards for us All," The Guardian, November 19, 2005, at 27.

Jessica Shepherd, "Laureate Warns Over IP Reform," The Times Higher Education Supplement, November 25, 2005 at 2.

John E. Sulston, "Beyond Release: The Equitable Use of Genomic Information," 362 The Lancet 400-402 (2003).

John Sulston, "Staking Claims in the Biotechnology Klondike," 84 Bulletin of the World Health Organization 412-414 (2006).

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