Today's New York Times has a passionate op-ed by Michael Crichton on the subject of gene patents. Now, as my previous posts will demonstrate, I'm no fan of over-patenting. And the whole topic of gene (and protein) patents is a very interesting and important one.
Unfortunately, though, it's also very complex, and Crichton's piece manages to complete reduce the subject to tinkling fragments. The op-ed is so vigorously argued that its readers will probably come away feeling as if they've been informed, but I'm afraid that they're going to end up knowing less than when they started. I hate to be this blunt about it, but Crichton's done his cause a great disservice by spreading ignorance and confusion.
The official position of the Patent Office is that products of nature are not patentable. But. . .an isolated or purified one, in a form not found naturally, can be. Single genes, ripped out of their context in genomic DNA and expressed as a pure form, are considered to be new chemical substances, and thus can indeed be patented. We can argue about whether this is a proper interpretation or whether it's a good idea, but to ignore the point completely (as Crichton's piece does) isn't going to help anyone understand the problem.
You'd also never guess from reading Crichton that the subject of utility is of great importance in patent law. There's a profound difference between a patent on a gene, and a patent on a use for a gene. (That may sound trivial, but only if you've never been involved in writing or analyzing any patents). Ten years ago, the US Patent Office was getting swamped by gene applications with very little thought to their use (other than some pro forma statements, but they raised their standardsper se shouldn't be allowed, you'd still have the use issue to deal with. The word "utility" does not appear in today's op-ed.
You'd also never know that the whole subject is being contested, very seriously and expensively, in court cases all over the world. The Metabolite case, which the Supreme Court recently dodged, is the one with the highest recent profile, and there will be more. It's not like the topic hasn't created controversy.
If you want a thoughtful analysis of the problems of gene patenting, start with this analysis (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service. Reading and understanding it will put you way ahead of the readers of the New York Times and, it seems, way ahead of Michael Crichton.