DNA Day experts answer your questions about patenting genetic discoveries

Above: Image © relif, iStockphoto.com

If genetic discoveries are patentable, how should a legitimate discovery be defined?

Tough question - in the early days people tried to patent gene sequences found in nature, such that if anyone else tried to use that gene for any purpose,they would have to pay royalties or licensing fees. This has been discouraged lately, the idea being that you have to "create" something for it to be patentable. Hence its the modified organism itself that is typically patented these days and not the gene sequence - unless you've somehow modified it.

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

Recently in the news, we have heard that the United States Supreme Court is considering a case regarding the "patenting of human genes." What are some of the reasons for or against granting these patents? What could be the impacts of the court' s upcoming decision?

I am not sure if I am the best suited to answer this question, because there are many ethical issues associated with this. One thing I think that people should understand is that when we think of bringing drugs to market, we must patent these drugs to give the drug companies time to bring the drug to market. This gives the drug company protection to do the clinical trials etc which can cost billions of dollars. If they did not have patent protection then other companies to make knock off drugs and cut into their market share. So what I'm trying to say is that without patent protection no would develop the drugs. Although patenting genetic material has other issues associated with it (which I won't get into here) would Myriad genetics have developed the BRCA1 and BRCA2 tests. This is what is being argued in the Supreme court right now. Perhaps you can follow up with me later and I can direct you to someone who would give you more of the ethical ramifications of patenting genes.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

What are some of the consequences (good or bad) in patenting DNA? Should this be something society should vote on?

There is no short answer to this question: on the one hand it can streamline research into medical conditions associated with the patented gene; on the other it can lead to all kinds of lawsuits, both in medicine and agriculture with genetically modified crops ... It's generally true though that a gene has to have been changed in some way to allow it to be patented. Another problem is that different countries have different patent laws, so what seems patentable in one place is not in another.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram


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