History of Patenting Life and Its Parts

Daniel Kevles reviews the history of patenting "life and its parts" in a recent talk at Duke Law School.  The talk provides an overview of the major events that have shaped our current intellectual property regime, including Ananda Chakrabarty and the oil-slick eating bacteria, Philip Leder and the Oncomouse, Stan Allen and the triploid Pacific Oyster, Craig Venter and Expressed Sequence Tags (EST), Myriad’s patent claims on the BRCA genes, and lots of interesting minutiae.   He ends the talk with this comment:

"We all have a stake in human genes, just as for example, down-river residents have a stake in up-river holders of riparian rights.  We limit the rights of the up-river holders to do with their property whatever they wish, the time may well be coming, in fact I think its already here, when we will limit the IP rights in human genes too…"

Watch the streaming webcast

Daniel Kevles "Patenting Life and Its Parts: Ethics and Rights in the Political Economy of Intellectual Property" Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, April 7, 2005. (streaming webcast)

Daniel Kevles faculty profile at Yale.

: Personal genome sequencing presents some interesting challenges to intellectual property — or perhaps it is the reverse, intellectual property claims present some interesting challenges for personal genome sequencing.  Jay Shendure framed the issue in an excellent paper on the cost of sequencing:

[Ultra low cost sequencing] technologies will probably not be able to avoid the resequencing of patented genes.  Interesting legal issues arise around the question of patients’ rights to have analysed (or to self-analyse) their own DNA sequence versus corporate interests that presumably own the rights to that analysis.

If personal genome sequencing were available cheaply today, this issue might be problematic, to give an example, with the way in which Myriad Genetics exercises their patent claims on BRCA1 and BRCA2.  Daniel Kevles points out they they require that all sequencing of these genes be done at Myriad’s labs.  If other companies adopt similar models to enforce intellectual property rights, the $1000 genome would appear to be dead in the water.  If a person had to send blood or buccal samples to hundreds of labs in order to get a full genome sequence, the shipping costs alone might be more than $1000.

John A. Robertson. "The $1000 Genome: Ethical and Legal Issues in Whole Genome Sequencing of Individuals" The American Journal of Bioethics 3(3):W35-W42

Shendure J, Mitra R, Varma C, Church GM (2004) Advanced Sequencing Technologies: Methods and Goals. Nature Reviews of Genetics May;5(5):335-44.


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