Like medieval alchemists, modern biologists apply intricate, esoteric protocols to lowly matter, such as bacteria and rodents. Unlike alchemists, biologists successfully transmute these creatures into gold--disease-fighting pharmaceuticals and profits accruing from them. An indispensable ingredient in this dross-to-drug process is patent protection, which preserves monopoly and attracts investment. Unfortunately, the patent system isn't as ideal a catalyst as the chimerical philosopher's stone sought by alchemists.

How do efforts to improve the system affect the success of biotechnology? Three recent developments could provide clues. First, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), burdened by thousands of applications for gene patents, is proposing new guidelines under which it could reject many pending and future applications. Second, Congress recently enacted the most extensive revision of the patent statute since 1984, and though the law could extend the lives of many biotech patents, it's not entirely benign. Finally, as holders of biotech patents begin...

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