from the anti-innovation dept
Last year, Techdirt wrote about how one of the most significant breakthroughs in the field of genomics is already embroiled in a nasty patent battle. But it's not just the fundamental techniques in this field that are being held back by selfish attempts to "own" key technologies. An article in the MIT Technology Review reports that the dominant manufacturer of DNA sequencing machines, Illumina, is trying to use patents to throttle an upstart rival:
Illumina said today it would try to block commercial sales of a disruptive new DNA sequencing instrument developed by a high-flying British rival, Oxford Nanopore.
Oxford Nanopore denies that it is infringing on any patent that Illumina controls, but needs to be able to prove that not just once, but twice. As well as suing in the courts, Illumina is trying to use the International Trade Commission (ITC) loophole that Techdirt has been warning about for many years now. The ITC does not award damages, but can impose injunctions that block the import of items it deems infringing. And that's precisely what Illumina wants, in order to stop the British Oxford Nanopore from challenging it in the US with its new technology, which offers important advantages over Illumina's systems:
In a patent lawsuit [pdf] and a separate complaint [pdf] with the U.S. International Trade Commission, Illumina said the British company's cutting-edge DNA sequencing devices contain stolen ideas and should be stopped at the docks.
Illumina's refrigerator-sized instruments are fast and accurate (see "Why Illumina Is Number One"). But because it works differently, Oxford's MinION, as the device is called, is small enough to be portable (it's about the size of a cell phone) and reads out very long stretches of DNA.
According to the MIT Technology Review article, which gives more details on how the nanopore technology works, more than a thousand teams are already using Oxford Nanopore's pocked-sized sequencing unit. It offers capabilities that Illumina not only cannot match but is unlikely to match any time soon:
Although it's slower and less accurate than Illumina's instruments, nanopore technology threatens to become a competitor as scientists find entirely new applications for it like sequencing Ebola viruses and diagnosing patients from a makeshift lab in Guinea.
In asking U.S. trade officials to investigate Oxford and possibly bar imports of the MinION to the U.S., Illumina could anger researchers, since no comparable technology is available. Illumina has never announced plans to sell a nanopore product of its own.
So, rather than competing by launching its own equivalent product, a big, successful company that dominates a market is trying to use legal actions to squash an exciting new technology before it becomes a serious threat. In other words, yet another case of patents being used not to innovate, for the benefit of the public, but to stifle innovation, solely for the benefit of the current market leader.