LONDON Euphoria surrounding the completion of mankind's DNA blueprint is being overshadowed by commercial competition, as private companies, lawyers, investors and public groups all rush to patent genes and get a slice of the lucrative biotech pie.
The race to produce a complete map of mankind's genetic code was only the prologue to a far more sinister plot. Research commissioned by the UK's
Biotech firms recognise that the gene market promises big money and claim they need patent protection in order to recoup their investments. But scientists are divided on this issue of gene accessibility. Early this year, a rift re-emerged in the uneasy public/private research partnership between the Human Genome Project (HGP) and Celera Genomics, when Celera confirmed that it would charge subscription fees for access to the genome database.
The organisers of the publicly funded HGP are adamant that such fundamental research should not be commercially exploited but should remain a public resource.
Now gene patents are being granted before scientists have determined the individual gene's potential. Sue Mayer, head of the independent watchdog body GeneWatch UK, commented: "Unless people look at the issue seriously, unless the rules are changed … in a few years time we will find very basic knowledge and information has been privatised."
Thomas Schweiger from German Greenpeace compared the situation to someone buying a street and taking a toll from everybody passing through. And what makes the matter worse is that some patents being granted are creating the genome equivalent of cyber-squatters — those people who buy internet domains only to sell them on for a huge profit.
But Andre Pernet, chief executive of the biotech company Genset, sees the scare caused by gene patenting as an overreaction. Patents only exist for 20 years from filing date but in order for a provisional patent to be confirmed, the holder must deposit a sample of the new invention into one of 26 worldwide culture depositories. "You don't want to patent a gene and then just watch the patent time deadline melt away like a block of ice," says Pernet. "There's no money to be made unless you really want to develop a drug," he adds.
These may be comforting words for fellow biotech companies, but such an attitude also confirms many scientists' fears that future medical research will be a rich man's world.