"Genome Patent Fights Erupts"

Here is An old and forgotten story from 1991. This is possibly from where the idea of patenting BRCA1 and BRCA2 cancer genes came from.

AT A CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING ON THE Human Genome Project last summer, molecular biologist Craig Venter of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke dropped a bombshell whose repercussions are still reverberating throughout the genome community. While describing his new project to sequence partially every gene active in the human brain, Venter casually mentioned that his employer, the National Institutes of Health, was planning to file patent applications on 1000 of these sequences a month.

“I almost fell off my chair,” says one briefing participant who asked not to be named. James Watson, who directs the genome project at NIH, did more than that, exploding and denouncing the plan as “sheer lunacy.” With the advent of automated sequencing machines, “virtually any monkey” can do what Venter’s group is doing, said Watson, who in one sentence managed to insult Venter, his dismayed postdocs, and Reid Adler, the director of NIH’s Office of Technology Transfer, who advised Venter to pursue the patents. “What is important is interpreting the sequence,” insisted Watson. If these random bits of sequences can be patented, he said, “I am horrified.”

Watson may have been the most outspoken, but he was not the only one to be horrified. The scheme has engendered a firestorm of criticism from genome scientists and project officials alike, including David Galas, Watson’s counterpart who oversees the genome effort at the Department of Energy (DOE), which will begin funding some of Venter’s work in November; Stanford’s David Botstein, a prominent genome project researcher; and Walter Bodmer of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, who is also president of the International Human Genome Organization in London. The critics argue that these sequences probably can’t be patented in the first place–and even if they can, they shouldn’t be.

What galls Watson and the other critics the most is the notion that by simply sequencing a short piece of an unidentified clone with an automated sequencing machine–“a dumb, repetitive task,” as one critic describes it–someone could conceivably lay claim to most of the human genes. This, they say, would undercut patent protection for those who labor long and hard at the real task of elucidating the function of the proteins encoded by the genes, thereby driving industry away.

Written by M. //