TCS Daily

Mr. President, Leave Biotech Alone!

By James Freeman - March 20, 2000 12:00 AM

President Clinton recently joined the anti-biotech chorus, questioning industry patents and torpedoing company valuations. In this week's Tech Central Guest Column, Jim DeLong offers an eloquent defense of intellectual property rights in general. I'd like to tell you why one company in particular deserves our praise, instead of Bill Clinton's contempt. As you may know, an upstart firm called Celera Genomics is on pace to defeat a $3 billion government project in the race to decode human DNA. And no, Celera isn't going to own all the building blocks of life, as some critics suggest, but the company's research could someday save your life.

The good news is that Celera's revolutionary techniques for mapping or "sequencing" human genes have increased the pace of medical discovery. The result will be rapid advances in the diagnosis and treatment of countless diseases, from Alzheimers to cancer. In fact, since every disease has some genetic basis, a clear picture of the roughly 90,000 genes in the human body could aid in curing all diseases.

Celera, led by scientist Craig Venter, has clearly forced government researchers to get with the program. As USA TODAY's Tim Friend reported in October 1999, "...the pace of sequencing at the publicly funded project has accelerated dramatically since Celera announced in May 1998 that it would single-handedly sequence all human genes and do it faster and more cheaply."

Faster and cheaper is good for science and good for patients. But some people don't like the fact that Celera has a profit motive, unlike the government. Anti-science zealots have raised alarms about private ownership of genetic discoveries. We're supposed to be terrified that some company will own DNA, as if we'll all have to pay royalties based on the genes in our bodies. This is bull.

Put simply, companies that fund genetic research are in some cases seeking patents on their discoveries. This means that they will have the exclusive right for some period of time to develop products resulting from their research. Celera intends to patent some of its discoveries and then license them to health care firms like Pfizer and Amgen.

Nobody is going to own your DNA. What Celera will own is a temporary license to create medicines related to the specific genes they discover. Any researcher who wants to see Celera's database of genes will be welcome to it. Any scientist can use Celera's research to assist in further discoveries. But anyone who wants to sell a product based on Celera's work will have to pay a royalty.

Far from being scared, we should welcome corporate efforts to secure and license patents, because it means that these companies see a commercial opportunity. In other words, they're going to invest their research dollars in creating new medicines to cure what ails us. If some company thinks it can gain an edge by patenting a discovery related to fighting cancer, that's great news, because a treatment is probably on the way.

Too often, patent protection is portrayed as some kind of corporate grab or the result of slick lobbying. In fact, just like copyrights, patents are essential to scientific advance and economic growth. After all, health care companies will not invest the $500 million it takes to bring a new drug to market if they can't reap the rewards.

The framers of our Constitution understood that if you want people to invent new things, you have to give them an incentive. That's why patent and copyright protection is included in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.

Similarly, "commercialization" is often a dirty word in the media, but if you want a treatment for the disease that threatens your life, then science has to be commercialized at some point. Somebody has to take the basic science conducted by Celera or the Human Genome Project and apply it to a specific human need. Somebody has to create the drug, build the factory to produce it in large quantities, and then distribute it to pharmacies and hospitals. Craig Venter and the folks at Celera are bringing that day closer for countless new life-saving medicines, and that's good news for all of us.

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