How can we help the genome in the public domain?by Tom Wilkie / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Not since the enclosures of common land has there been such a conflict over the boundary between public and private property. Who owns the genome?
Deciphering the genetic code is one of the biggest steps in biology since Vesalius published the first human anatomy in 1543, and the first milestone has just been passed: researchers at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Centre, near Cambridge, have decoded an entire human chromosome (number 22). By the end of the year, the Sanger scientists will announce that they have sequenced one third of all human DNA. A rough draft of the genome-three billion letters long-will be available next spring. In these letters is a new version of human anatomy: not in bones and blood vessels like Vesalius’s atlas, but a blueprint in biochemistry: the genome is the recipe book for all the proteins which make up the human body.
The world’s biotechnology companies have been quick to recognise the potential for drug discovery of this genetic knowledge. Since 1945, drug companies have used only 400 or so “targets” for drug development: proteins (such as insulin) or the receptors on which the proteins act. There are thought to be at least 100,000 human genes, each of which could supply several targets for drug development. Small wonder that some companies have been rushing to patent every gene sequence to which they could lay claim.
More than 1,000 patent claims have now been made for genes or gene fragments. For example, two genes appear to be associated with inherited breast and ovarian cancer (fewer than 5 per cent of all breast cancers are inherited), and both have been patented.
However, in a deal brokered three years ago in Bermuda by the Wellcome Trust, the US National Institutes of Health and its counterparts in Britain, France, Germany and Japan, committed themselves to dumping every piece of sequence data on the worldwide web as soon as it became available. In Europe, at least, prior publication makes patenting impossible, so the agreement represented a commitment by all the big publicly-funded players that the human genome should remain accessible to all. What the agreement did not allow for was the possibility that privately financed sequencing efforts might outstrip the public ones, and file for patents before publication on the web. Last year, Craig Venter, an American researcher, announced that he would lead a privately financed consortium to do just this.