Will Genomics Spoil Gene Ownership?

Consider a scenario for the year 2002: Using commercially available software, bioprospector "Craig Collins" spends a day scavenging the Human Genome Project (HGP) database for the alternatively spliced genes prized by Wall Street. He enters the sequences of several candidate genes into a software package that prints out the likely functions of their protein products. One protein looks like it could be pharmaceutical paydirt, so he isolates the corresponding cDNA, inserts it into a vector, then

Douglas Steinberg
Sep 3, 2000

Consider a scenario for the year 2002: Using commercially available software, bioprospector "Craig Collins" spends a day scavenging the Human Genome Project (HGP) database for the alternatively spliced genes prized by Wall Street. He enters the sequences of several candidate genes into a software package that prints out the likely functions of their protein products. One protein looks like it could be pharmaceutical paydirt, so he isolates the corresponding cDNA, inserts it into a vector, then applies for a patent on the gene and protein.

Given how easy his task was, should Collins enjoy the potentially lucrative monopoly afforded by a patent? At an earlier stage of HGP, James D. Watson, then the project's director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and an opponent of patenting, famously said that an automated gene-hunting technique could be "done by monkeys."1 The law, however, doesn't require that patentable inventions be...