I retired in April 2013 after 25 years as a librarian at the British Library specialising in inventions. This included running numerous workshops; writing books on inventions and a work blog; carrying out searches for clients; and one-to-one meetings with inventors. [more]


6 March 2014

Patently obvious ? Genes and patents

A couple of nights ago I attended "Patently obvious ?", a discussion on genes and patents at the British Library, as mentioned in an earlier post. It was part of the TalkScience series. About 100 attended, and it was clear that most there were aged 18 to 25 or so, which was encouraging.

The format was a common one at the British Library. Three speakers and a moderator spoke and then there was plenty of time for questions to be asked. When I worked at the British Library, I mostly worked with mechanical inventions, and I only have a Biology O level, so I must confess that some of it went over my head.

The basic question was whether patents helped or hindered biomedicine research. Is something that's already there, such as a gene, patentable, or it just a discovery.

Professor Alan Ashworth, Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, spoke first and said that patents were a hinderance. Dr Nick Bourne of Cardiff University, who is involved with technology transfer, and Dr Berwyn Clarke, who founded a biomarker company. Both were in favour of patents. The moderator was Professor Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

My summary of the arguments, including my own thoughts, are as follows. I may have somewhat distorted the arguments made, in which case I apologise in advance.

For patents, they encourage research by offering the possibility of financial gain. Private firms otherwise wouldn't get involved. Venture capitalists will ask, what IP do you have, and if there is no IP they will not invest. Hence even if academia does the research nobody spends the money to exploit a discovery.

My additional thoughts are that if we don't use patents to make money out of ideas, other countries will (provided there's IP and hence a monopoly); and that patent documents must be published, in a structured way, on databases, providing access to the world. Much research in academia is probably kept secret for a long time -- or eked out in occasional academic papers ?

Against patents, most genes are identified for their significance by academia, yet it apparently typically costs $4000 to "look at" a gene. I think that this is a reference to biomarker diagnostic kits, where a researcher is enabled to quickly go to a gene he or she wishes to study. Professor Ashworth did say that pharmaceutical research was so costly that patent protection, to protect the investment, was crucial.

Someone in the audience asked if the public sector could undertake much of the basic research to provide a social good. The problem is funding it, as there would be huge financial risk if there were attempts to commercialise it. If no such attempts, again would others step in ? There was also the argument that you can't publish in journals until you've filed a patent. Technology transfer offices apparently often ask that more work is done to establish good, wide patent claims before filing, hence a delay.

There were a number of mentions of the Myriad decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled, in AMP v Myriad Genetics, in June 2013, that key patent claims were not patentable. The text is here. A commentary , from the Wikipedia web site, which cites and (in the footnotes) links to the patents, is available. There is also for example a post in the Genomics Law Report blog, is called Myriad, finally: Supreme Court surprises by not surprising.

An interesting comment was that a US study suggests that only 1 in 1000 patents by universities generate significant income. I am not sure if that is an argument for or against them ! Other comments were a request for a compulsory database of failed clinical trials (yes, it's odd how academic papers so often state that a result was what had been expected), and compulsory licensing (at a low rate ?) of patented, commercialised work.

I simply didn't have time to scribble down all the interesting comments made. I'd have liked to have looked up citations to some of the studies mentioned in passing.

So, who won ? There was no vote on the issue. I can see both points of view, and the need to attract money to spend on developing biological products through patent protection is to me a strong argument.

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