Argument: Little evidence exists that gene patents hurt research

Issue Report: Gene patents


Timothy Caulfield. “Do gene patents hurt research?” Science Progress. October 29, 2009: “Through all this public dialogue and political debate, the practice of gene patenting has marched forward more or less unabated. There has been some tweaking of patent policy—such as a 2001 tightening of the patent criteria requiring inventors to disclose a clear use to the gene—but, in general, every jurisdiction embraces the practice. You can get a gene patent in Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, all through continental Europe and, of course, in the United States. Calculations estimate that there are well over 40,000 patents issues covering over 20 percent of the entire human genome.

A large 2007 study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found “very little evidence of an ‘anticommons problem.’” A 2005 study done for the National Academy of Sciences found only 1 percent of the scientists surveyed reported suffering a project delay of more than 1 month due to patents. My own research on the Canadian genetic research community, published in early 2009, revealed lots of researcher concern about gene patents, but little evidence that they are actually having a detrimental impact on the research environment.

Many others have noted the absence of evidence that gene patents impede research, including law professor Chris Holman, who wrote in a 2007 paper: “The paucity of documented examples in which the fears surrounding gene patents have manifested themselves is striking, particularly when one considers the high level of public concern and the extraordinary nature of the proposed legislative fix.”

Given all this data and commentary, one can only speculate as to why the anti-commons/patent thicket argument continues as the justification for reform. It does have great intuitive appeal, and it seems a logical consequence of the existence of numerous overlapping patents. There have also been a number of high-profile controversies that seem to confirm the concern, most notably when the company Myriad Genetics enforced patents on a gene strongly correlated with dramatic risks of breast cancer. But as all good scientists and clinicians know, anecdotes are not good evidence—especially when there are more systematic data pointing in the opposite direction.”