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Gene Cartels

Biotech Patents in the Age of Free Trade

Luigi Palombi

Starting with the 13th century, this book explores how patents have been used as an economic protectionist tool, developing and evolving to the point where thousands of patents have been ultimately granted not over inventions, but over isolated or purified biological materials. DNA, invented by no man and once thought to be ‘free to all men and reserved exclusively to none’, has become cartelised in the hands of multinational corporations. The author questions whether the continuing grant of patents can be justified when they are now used to suppress, rather than promote, research and development in the life sciences.
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Chapter 10: Synthetic Biology and a Time for Reflection

Luigi Palombi


10. Synthetic biology and a time for reflection [A]n important priority for national initiatives . . . should be to push for placing as many of the DNA parts as possible in the public domain. This will encourage sharing of materials unshackled by IP licenses, reduce the cost and time of engineering and encourage the development of biological solutions to our most challenging problems. Most important, it will allow synthetic biology to reach its true power and potential. Editorial, Nature Biotechnology, August 2007 One hundred years after Pasteur was granted a US patent for an improved beer-making process which included a claim to purified yeast,1 Cohen and Boyer discovered that it was possible to cut DNA from the genome of one organism and splice it into the genome of another.2 Their discovery, like Pasteur’s discovery of ‘pernicious germs’, was so revolutionary that it changed scientific thinking for ever, contributing to a body of knowledge which finally enabled scientists to adapt nature’s processes to manufacture biological materials in vast quantities and with a purity that was hitherto thought impossible. They were acknowledged as inventors on a US patent, although it was their university, not they, that received millions of dollars in royalties; but Stanford never exercised its patent rights to exclude others from using the ‘invention’ made possible by their discovery. Indeed the university’s policy of non-exclusive licensing enabled Genentech, a company which Boyer co-founded, to patent the genetic material of the human gene which encoded human insulin, a...

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