James Watson, Co-Discoverer Of DNA's Structure, Says 'Patenting Human Genes Was Lunacy'

from the and-he-should-know dept

Techdirt has been covering the important Myriad Genetics case for a while. Although the CAFC decided that isolated genes could be patented, the Supreme Court has asked the appeals court to review the case in light of the former's rejection of medical diagnostic patents.

The importance of this case is highlighted by the amicus curiae brief filed by James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, for which they received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 (along with Maurice Wilkins for related work.) Watson makes his views plain from the start:

what the Court misses, I fear, is the fundamentally unique nature of the human gene. Simply put, no other molecule can store the information necessary to create and propagate life the way DNA does. It is a chemical entity, but DNA’s importance flows from its ability to encode and transmit the instructions for creating humans. Life’s instructions ought not be controlled by legal monopolies created at the whim of Congress or the courts.
Watson recalls discussions on the topic during the $3 billion Human Genome Project to sequence human DNA as completely as possible:
Even at the early stages of the project, we were concerned about the issue of patenting human genes. Most, although not all, eminent scientists recognized that human genes should not be monopolized by patents. I believed at the time -- and continue to believe -- that the issue of patenting human genes went to the very crux of whether the information encoded by human DNA should be freely available to the scientific community. Some twenty years ago, I explained that patenting human genes was lunacy, and I was not a lone voice.
He also points out some concrete problems with gene patents in terms of their impact on assays (tests) that involve multiple genes:
If each of the human genes used in a new multi-gene assay are subject to patents, I fear that useful tests requiring multiple human genes will be unnecessarily delayed, become prohibitively expensive, or, worse yet, never be made available to patients at all. For a new assay using hundreds of human genes, the sea of patents and patent applications would create hundreds, if not thousands, of individual obstacles to developing and commercializing the assay. The best way, in my view, to resolve this problem is to eliminate the unnecessary patenting of human genes.
As this makes clear, if gene patents are permitted, patent thickets are likely to develop, which will delay new tests, and make them more expensive.

Aside from his position as one of the people that discovered the structure of DNA in the first place, Watson has another reason why his views on patenting genes carry some weight. As he relates in a footnote to his submission to the court:

Amusingly, after I gave my first presentation of our DNA structure in June 1953, Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist and inventor of the nuclear chain reaction, asked whether I would patent the structure. That, of course, was out of the question.
Like Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web, Watson declined to patent one of the most important discoveries of all time because he believed it was the right thing to do. Let's hope the appeals court agrees with him when it hands down its decision on gene patents.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Jesse (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 3:13pm

    Patenting genes is patenting nature. Lets patent electricity and gravity. That makes as much sense. Think of the royalties!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    icon
    Krish (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 3:17pm

    discoveries

    I like that you call the world wide web a discovery and not an invention. :) I can totally see Tim Berners-Lee digging up the first ever seen chunk of world wide webinum.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    :Lobo Santo (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 3:21pm

    Re: Royalties

    Pshaw!

    I will obtain the patent on Water... and then become the wealthiest human in the Universe.

    Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 3:43pm

    Re: Re: Royalties

    ...

    A method for the production and usages of dihydrogen monoxide.

    Patent pending

     

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  5.  
    icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 3:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Royalties

    Got your patent name right here ...

    A method for the production and usages of dihydrogen monoxide.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    athe, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 3:47pm

    Why does Watson hate the artificial propagation of human life?

    /sarc

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:03pm

    I am wondering can I patent my genes, then sue my children for having my genes? Where will this corporatocracy/idiocracy end.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:08pm

    I'm getting a patent on fingerprints, if it's not already taken.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:13pm

    Re:

    He is one of those pirates stealing money from the owners of those patents. The poor patent-owners will starve to death if he does not change his mind. I would call him a potential murderer!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:15pm

    Re:

    you aperantly can get a patent on your own fingerprints, then if you commit a crime and fingerprints are used against you. they are an infringement.

     

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  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:34pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Royalties

    You can also use any of the other names for it.

    Water
    Oxidane
    Other names

    Hydrogen oxide
    Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO)
    Hydrogen monoxide
    Dihydrogen oxide
    Hydrogen hydroxide (HH or HOH)
    Hydric acid
    Hydrohydroxic acid
    Hydroxic acid
    Hydroxylic acid
    Hydroxilic acid
    Hydrol[1]
    μ-Oxido dihydrogen

    Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Properties_of_water

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:42pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Royalties

    The dihydrogen monoxide hoax was the best one to demonstrate how to create a panic about anything.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydrogen_monoxide_hoax

    If you go on the streets and ask people to ban any dangerous chemical they will sign it LoL

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    OrgoBio, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:42pm

    James Watson, Co-Discoverer of DNA Structure...

    James Watson was Co-Discoverer of DNA Structure and not DNA itself. Just saying.

     

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  14.  
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    Chosen Reject (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:49pm

    I fear that useful tests requiring multiple human genes will be unnecessarily delayed, become prohibitively expensive, or, worse yet, never be made available to patients at all. For a new assay using hundreds of human genes, the sea of patents and patent applications would create hundreds, if not thousands, of individual obstacles to developing and commercializing the assay
    I've argued this before. Patents, by their very definition, hold back innovation. Some people, many of them here, have no problem recognizing this with software, but think it's different for other fields for some reason. However, patents hold back innovation in all fields. They are a tax, either in time, money or effort, on innovation.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 4:51pm

    Germlines

    Just wait until the patent mess we get into if germline treatments ever get off the ground. Germlines are inheritable sequences - those passed from parent to child.

    Would a potential parent with a patented sequence have to get permission from the patent holder before procreating? What about not wearing a condom during sex, or donating sperm? Would the child be bound by some contract that was entered into before they were born? The consequences here are quite staggering with any gene patents in the picture.

    Or even without germline therapies, what happens if a patented sequence is the same as one that arose naturally through random mutation? We can't get independent invention sorted out, what makes anyone think we could even remotely handle that in our legal system?

     

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  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 5:23pm

    Back in the days when you bought things like printing presses, tractors, and many other things they came with technical manuals. These technical manuals had pictures of various components and they had information about how everything is put together.

    Now a days, despite more and stricter patents, almost nothing comes with a technical manual anymore, they only have a users manual and most of the time a modern users manual is very brief (it maybe twenty pages for like three languages leaving like six or seven pages per language, depending on what you buy. A users manual for a computer motherboard and a car maybe more pages).

    I thought patents were supposed to encourage people to divulge more information. But they seem to do the exact opposite. Instead of encouraging companies to disclose more information patents actually discourage companies from disclosing information because doing so makes it far easier for a patent troll to simply read the manual, find potentially infringing information, and sue the company. Not disclosing the information may require the meritless patent troll to actually reverse engineer the product to find every possible infringement and this is far more difficult for a patent troll that's too stupid, lazy, and ignorant to build anything to do. and so companies are now much more afraid to disclose information about how their products work in fear of getting sued. Why do so when it can expose you to so much more liability?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Pseudonym, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 5:36pm

    Re: discoveries

    I thought that was funny too.

    Having said that, the world wide web is a perfect example of an invention which is a remix. Sir Tim freely admits that very little of the underlying technology was fundamentally original. MIME (on which HTTP is based) and SGML (on which HTML is based) were pre-existing standards. He did "invent" the URL/URI (and subsequently apologised for the double slash), but the key innovation was the exact combination of pre-existing technology and the brilliant execution.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    icon
    Andrew F (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 7:41pm

    Re:

    That's actually a good case for an independent invention defense. Assume that to win a patent case, you had to prove that the defendant copied your invention from something you did. If you bundled a technical manual explaining how the invention worked with every product you sold, and the defendant purchased said product and manual, you'd have a relatively easy case.

    "How do you know I copied your invention?"
    "You bought the how-to manual."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    Mega1987 (profile), Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 8:56pm

    Whoever suggested that DNA must be patented must be a fan of Inbreeding...

    Don't want to compromise the "purity" of their genes that the breed with their own relatives... Nice going...whoever crazy enough to said that.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Roland, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 10:24pm

    no ownership of people

    I thought this sort of thing was banned by Lincoln via the Emancipation Proclamation. You can't own people, or even parts of people. Not 3/5ths of a person (Dred Scott decision). And if "Corporations are people, my friend", then corporate takeovers/buyouts a la Bain Capital (or even IPOs) would also involve ownership of people. And why doesn't the Citizens United decision force corporations to use the Personal Income Tax Code, like the rest of us people? Alternatively, why can't I use the Corporate Tax Code?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 11:58pm

    Re: Re:

    I'm not sure I understand your post.

    "you had to prove that the defendant copied your invention from something you did"

    If you had to prove that the defendant copies your invention then that would make you the plaintiff. If you are the plaintiff then how can you use the independent invention 'defense' when you are on the offense.

     

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  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 2nd, 2012 @ 11:59pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    copied *

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 12:10am

    Patenting human genes da fuck? It would eventually lead to being forced to do what they want. They could require you to do some fucked up stuff when it comes to any issue involving that gene.

    It might be the methods such as being required to take X medication to even have your shit looked at.

    I wanna patent a gene as well then anyone with it that I don't like I will demand it be removed and since it's not possible I'll just demand that they should be executed.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Glyn Moody, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 12:40am

    Re: James Watson, Co-Discoverer of DNA Structure...

    indeed - thanks for pointing it out, fixed

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 1:08am

    Masnick, you are an idiot. I've already told you why we need IP; without it supermarkets will collapse and the human race will starve. If you don't let people patent human genes propogating future generations will completely cease to exist. Why do you hate paywalls, Little Chubby Chicken Pirate Mike?

    [/bob]

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 4:14am

    Re: Re: discoveries

    > He did "invent" the URL/URI (and subsequently apologised for the double slash)

    The double slash wasn't original too; it was from the Apollo Domain (see http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/06/sir-tim-berners-lee/). The only original part seems to be the http: in front, and would not surprise me if that came from somewhere else too.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    icon
    Chargone (profile), Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 4:16am

    Re:

    user manuals for many products also only contain information that anyone with any business anywhere NEAR the item already knows... and NOTHING that would actually be useful should a problem arise.

    (every single PS2 game sold here, from memory, wasted the first three or four pages of it's manual on an explanation of the European content rating system and instruction as to How to Set Up a PS2. (which had it's own manual, with better instructions on just that) also: how to insert the disk. the manuals were 30 pages long, tops, usually closer to 20, and often repeated THAT part in German and one or two other european languages as well. it wasn't unusual for the bit that was Actually About the Game to only be in english though. (then again, the games themselves were less and less likely to have other language options as time went by))

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 4:27am

    'Like Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web, Watson declined to patent one of the most important discoveries of all time because he believed it was the right thing to do. Let's hope the appeals court agrees with him when it hands down its decision on gene patents.'

    since when has a court used common sense in a ruling, particularly when there is going to be loads a money involved? can you imagine the reduction in medicinal discovery if a laboratory has to get permission every time it wants to use dna in experiments? what a joke!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 4:44am

    First we outlaw patents on genes. Then we recognize that genes are software and get all software patents invalidated!

     

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  30.  
    icon
    Mega1987 (profile), Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 6:18am

    Re:

    Oh sure... AC...
    Patent the DNA. Then you can't marry someone outside the family due to the fact you family's DNA is patented...
    *Cue Inter-family breeding...*

    Don't blame anyone if something came out wrong...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    staff, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 7:50am

    another biased article

    "Like Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web..."

    It has yet to be determined exactly what Lee invented. Still, any of his work which was public can be used against anyone trying to patent related technologies if Lee's work predated theirs, so have a beer and relax. As typical, you get all worked into a lather over things that aren't worth your frantics. As always, all you know about patents is you don't have any.

    The Constitution says “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. Therefore, if an invention is useful and promotes science, it should be patentable. It’s that simple.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 7:55am

    Re: Re:

    They try to make these things as brief as possible because disclosing too much information could potentially expose the company to infringement lawsuits. It's not like in the olden days where things came with technical manuals the size of a thick dictionary.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 8:04am

    Patenting life is so wrong and potentially disastrous for our society that I hope for once we get this right.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Preemie Maboroshi, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 8:10am

    patent technology, not subject matter

    About the only thing I know about DNA is what I learned by reading The Double Helix. That is all.

    But what I would guess is that you would want to patent technology that would allow you to analyze the human genome.

    Or if a report is made about some technology or therapeutic technique which is built on the employment of the current understanding of the genome, credit can be given for that specific interpretation of data.

    It makes sense (to me) to patent technology. And it makes sense that the redistribution of data made available by the technology should include a reference to the original distribution source. But it makes zero sense to patent the *subject* of the research.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    identicon
    Vic Kley, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 8:29am

    Watson can't shut up

    Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins did the actual work in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson lied for many years pretending that Rosalind made no contribution, hardly someone whose opinion we should value.

    Further a quick look on google shows many patents for James D. Watson. In any event elucidating the structure of DNA is not a patentable invention or in fact any invention at all.

    Setting up a series of processes, devices, chemicals(including DNA) and steps leading to the diagnosis of one or more diseases is an invention and may deserve a patent (for 20 years).

    The contention that a patent on some bit of DNA even uniquely Human DNA (and there isn't much of that) that provides a limited monopoly for 20 years and then COMPLETE PUBLIC access is a great wrong to humanity, while allowing people to suffer and die is morally ok is beyond a reasonable understanding. Patents enervate competition and capital to pursue solutions that solve problems for paying customers.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 10:46am

    Re: Watson can't shut up

    I agree that patents enervate competition. Well said.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
    icon
    RichWa (profile), Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 12:15pm

    I'm confused?

    If genes are patentable than would the act of procreation be in violation of patent laws if the child is born with the patented gene(s)?

    If I assign my rights to my genes away, as the Mayo Clinic has asked me to, what rights to those same genes do my children, who inherited the genes from me, have?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    icon
    TaCktiX (profile), Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 1:20pm

    Re: another biased article

    Being patentable and actually being patented are two different things. People have explicitly declined to patent inventions, particularly ones related to the internet's structure, and by and large those refusals are the reason the internet has succeeded as well as it has.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    icon
    DNY (profile), Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 3:21pm

    Re: no ownership of people

    Oh, cut it out with the "corporations are people" schtick. The majority in Citizens United did not base the decision on the notion of rights of a corporation as a juridical person, but on the rights of the shareholders, employees and managers as natural persons: their rights codified under the First Amendment are not abrogated by having banded together for a commercial purpose. It just leveled the playing field with labor unions whom no one seems to think should not be able to engage in political speech, even though they,too, are juridical and not natural persons.

    Actually it is equally obnoxious for corporate managers to use corporate (ultimately shareholder) resources to engage in political speech without a vote of the shareholders to establish a corporate position, and for union bosses to use union (ultimately worker) resources to engage in political speech without a vote of the rank-and-file to establish a union position.

    The free speech rights of corporations are derivative from those of the shareholders, just as those of unions are derivative from those of the members. I suspect fixing both problems in one go, by enacting a law requiring that all political "speech" be approved by majority vote of the shareholders (for joint-stock corporations) or members (for membership-corporations like labor unions) would pass judicial review just fine.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 3rd, 2012 @ 9:43pm

    Re: Re:

    Look at the attribution to bob. He's clearly not being serious.

    Also, "Little Chubby Chicken Pirate Mike"? How could you tell that wasn't parody?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
    icon
    Tex Arcana (profile), Jul 8th, 2012 @ 7:08pm

    Re: no ownership of people

    "'Corporations are people, my friend',

    http://i.imgur.com/AUEf2.jpg

    Please!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
    icon
    Tex Arcana (profile), Jul 8th, 2012 @ 7:17pm

    Intellectual Property Violation Case # 4846298ADTI-13.a90126.$/@#%¥£€?.z

    Dear sir or madam:

    You have been found in violation of our Intellectual Property, Patent #1,297,082,978,643,204.j, A Patent Covering the Gene That Makes Blood Red.

    Since it has been discovered that your blood is red, it is ordered that you give up said blood, and any red-like products in your body; as well as pay a fine not to be less than $1,853,061,067,081,921.99; and submit yourself to the nearest detention center for examination for any other genetic patent violations. If you are found to be in violation of any other patents, the offending violations will be immediately excised and you will be beaten into paying the appropriate fine, again not to be less than $1,853,061,067,081,921.99.

    Thank you for your cooperation.

    Citizen Corporation
    666 Insanity Way
    Washington, DC, 00666

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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