Synthetic life patents 'damaging'

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A top UK scientist who helped sequence the human genome has said efforts to patent the first synthetic life form would give its creator a monopoly on a range of genetic engineering.

Professor John Sulston said it would inhibit important research.

US-based Dr Craig Venter led the artificial life form research, details of which were published last week.

Prof Sulston and Dr Venter clashed over intellectual property when they raced to sequence the genome in 2000.

Craig Venter led a private sector effort which was to have seen charges for access to the information. John Sulston was part of a government and charity-backed effort to make the genome freely available to all scientists.

"The confrontation 10 years ago was about data release," Professor Sulston said.

"We said that this was the human genome and it should be in the public domain. And I'm extremely glad we managed to pull this out of the bag."

'Range of techniques'

Now the old rivals are at odds again over Dr Venter's efforts to apply for patents on the artificially created organism, nicknamed Synthia. The team outlined the remarkable advance last week in the prestigious journal Science.

But Professor Sulston, who is based at the University of Manchester, said patenting would be "extremely damaging".

"I've read through some of these patents and the claims are very, very broad indeed," Professor Sulston told BBC News.

"I hope very much these patents won't be accepted because they would bring genetic engineering under the control of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). They would have a monopoly on a whole range of techniques."

A spokesman for Dr Venter, of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California, said: "There are a number of companies working in the synthetic genomic/biology space and also many academic labs.

"Most if not all of these have likely filed some degree of patent protection on a variety of aspects of their work so it would seem unlikely that any one group, academic centre or company would be able to hold a 'monopoly' on anything.

"As the JCVI team and Dr Venter have said, open dialogue and discussion on all issues surrounding synthetic genomics/biology, including intellectual property, is very necessary for this field so these questions and discussions are all very important."

Over-use?

Professor Sulston made the comments at the Royal Society in London where he was discussing a report entitled Who owns Science? The report was produced by the Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation at Manchester University, which the professor chairs.

The study details an increased use of patents by researchers.

"My objections to patenting human genes or genes from existing living organisms is that they are inventions or discoveries," said Professor Sulston.

"The problem has become much worse since I raised the issue 10 years ago."

He believes that the over-use of patents is inhibiting research that could otherwise greatly benefit society, such as better healthcare for the poor.

Professor Sulston commented: "[It's fashionable to think] that it's important to have strong intellectual property and that it's essential for promoting innovation. But there's no evidence that it does promote innovation. There's an unwillingness to consider any problems."

But he also believes that these arguments are now beginning to be accepted.

Last November, a US company, Myriad Genetics, lost parts of its patent rights on two breast cancer genes following a legal challenge by civil rights groups.

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