Time to Open Source the Human Genome
The news this week that a researcher has bred a genetically smarter mouse is another
precursor to a new era of genetic manipulation. The experiment, performed by Dr. Joe
Tsien of Princeton, stimulated a gene called NR2B, producing mice with greatly
heightened intelligence and memory. The story has generated a great deal of interest,
especially as human brains may have a similar genetic mechanism, but there is a behind-
the-scenes story which better illuminates the likely shape of 21st century medicine.
Almost from the moment that the experiment was publicized, a dispute broke out about
ownership of NR2B itself, which is already patented by another lab. Like an information
age land-grab, whole sections of genetic information are being locked behind
pharmaceutical patents as fast as they are being identified. If the current system of
private ownership of genes continues, the majority of human genes could be owned in
less than two years. The only thing that could save us from this fate would be an open-
source movement in genetics -- a movement to open the DNA source code for the human
genome as a vast public trust.
Fighting over mouse brains may seem picayune, but the larger issue is ownership of the
genetic recipe for life. The case of the smarter mouse, patent pending, is not an
isolated one: among the patents granted for human genes are blindness (Axys
Pharmaceuticals), epilepsy (Progenitor), and Alzheimer's (Glaxo Wellcome). Rights to
the gene which controls arthritis will be worth millions, breast cancer, billions, and
the company that patents the genes that control weight loss can write their own ticket.
As the genome code becomes an essential part of industries from bio-computing and
cybernetic interfaces to cosmetics and nutrition, the social and economic changes it
instigates are going to make the effects of the Internet seem inconsequential.
Unfortunately for us, though, the Internet's intellectual property is mostly in the
public domain, while the genome is largely -- and increasingly -- private.
It didn't have to be this way. Patents exist to encourage investment by guaranteeing a
discoverer time to recoup their investment before facing any competition, but patent
law has become increasingly permissive in what constitutes a patentable discovery. There
are obviously patents to be had in methods of sequencing genes and for methods of using
those sequences to cure disease or enhance capability. But to allow a gene itself to be
patented makes a mockery of "prior art," the term which covers unpatented but widely
dispersed discoveries. It is prior art which keeps anyone from patenting fire, or the
wheel, and in the case of genetic information, life itself is the prior art. It is a
travesty of patent law that someone can have the gene for Alzheimer's in every cell of
their body, but that the patent for that gene is owned by Glaxo Wellcome.
The real action, of course, is not in mouse brains but in the human genome. Two teams,
one public and one private, are working feverishly to sequence all of the 100,000 or so
genes which lie within the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. The public consortium aims to
release the sequence into the public domain, while the private group aims to patent much
of the genome, especially the valuable list of mutations that cause genetic disease. The
competition between these two groups has vastly accelerated the pace of the work --
moving it from scheduled completion in 2005 to next year -- but the irony is that this
accelerated timetable won't give the public time to grasp the enormous changes the
project portends. By this time next year, the fate of the source code for life on earth
-- open or closed -- will be largely finished, long before most people have even begun
to understand what is at stake.