When all genes are patented, will we technically be owed by the companies holding the patents?
The idea of ownership is ubiquitous. Title deeds establish and protect ownership of our houses, while security of property is as important to the proprietors of Tesco and Sainsbury’s as it is to their customers. However, there is a profound problem when it comes to so-called intellectual property (IP) – which requires a strong lead from government, and for which independent advice has never been more urgently required. The David Nutt affair has illustrated very well the importance of objective analysis of complex social issues.
The myth is that IP rights are as important as our rights in castles, cars and corn oil. IP is supposedly intended to encourage inventors and the investment needed to bring their products to the clinic and marketplace. In reality, patents often suppress invention rather than promote it: drugs are “evergreened” when patents are on the verge of running out – companies buy up the patents of potential rivals in order to prevent them being turned into products. Moreover, the prices charged, especially for pharmaceuticals, are often grossly in excess of those required to cover costs and make reasonable profits.
IP rights are beginning to permeate every area of scientific endeavour. Even in universities, science and innovation, which have already been paid for out of the public purse, are privatised and resold to the public via patents acquired by commercial interests. The drive to commercialise science has overtaken not only applied research but also “blue-skies” research, such that even the pure quest for knowledge is subverted by the need for profit.
For example, it is estimated that some 20% of individual human genes have been patented already or have been filed for patenting. As a result, research on certain genes is largely restricted to the companies that hold the patents, and tests involving them are marketed at prohibitive prices. We believe that this poses a very real danger to the development of science for the public good.