Saturday, 7 July 2007

Network of genes, network of patents

I was away on a business trip for a few days, and in a hotel lobby I have chanced upon an International Herald Tribune (July 4th, 2007). And there I found a longish article in the economy section (!): Biotech industry rocked as theories change. The change of theories is described as:
"challenging the traditional view of our genetic blueprint as a tidy collection of independent genes, pointing instead to a complex network in which genes, along with regulatory elements and other types of DNA sequences that do not code for proteins, interact in overlapping ways not yet fully understood."
While this may be interesting scientific result, the IHT article aptly points that the one gene-one effect (one protein) stance led the way to gene patents: patents based on the assumption that industrial gene (made by splicing techniques) would have defined, owned, tracked and uniform effect, moreover with ability to sell and retract. But when the genes really work in a complex network how can we be sure which effects is due to what? Biologically. And legally too: if one patented gene depends on other natural or patented ones? Especially in ways we do not understand? How to pay royalties? How to split an eventual responsibility for damages? How to ensure that effects are uniform and as promised?

Well, there is much more to the subject. I was never in favour of granting patents on genes, but the US law has allowed the companies to do it. Without, as it turns out, proper understanding of the separability of the "inventions". And because we lack real understanding of the most of the genome (the original paper that has prompted the IHT article speaks about 1% of the genome) we are blundering blindly -- and this is never a good thing.

For more information see:
The ENCODE Project Consortium, Identification and analysis of functional elements in 1% of the human genome by the ENCODE pilot project, Nature 447
Mark B. Gerstein at al. What is a gene, post-ENCODE? History and updated definition, Genome Res. 2007 17: 669-681
Thomas R. Gingeras Origin of phenotypes: Genes and transcripts Genome Res. 2007 17: 682-690

1 comment:

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