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Patents Hotly Debated Legislation Would Open IP to Academics


Federal legislation introduced in the US in March seeks to make patented genomic data fair game to certain academic researchers.

Saying that the current patent environment stifles scientific advancement, the bill’s bipartisan sponsors hope to bar patent holders from suing academic scientists who use their IP for non-commercial research.

“Evidence is mounting that the patenting of human genes is both inhibiting important biomedical research and interfering with patient care,” says Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.), a sponsor of the bill. “Progress toward patenting of the entire human genetic sequence continues unabated [and] there is little doubt that most of the significant claims on our genetic code will be tied up as private property within a very few years.”

Though the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.), must still clear a slew of legislative hurdles, it has triggered swift and severe opposition from industry groups.

Predictably, the Bio- technology Industry Organization opposes the bill. BIO claims the legislation, HR 3967, is moot off the bat because academic researchers already enjoy the kind of immunity Rivers and Weldon seek to provide.

“The bill is operating under an erroneous premise,” Lila Feisee, BIO’s government relations and IP guru, told Genome Technology the day the bill was introduced. “I think [the representatives] are trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

In fact, if it becomes law, the bill will likely create new problems for most genomics companies, especially fledglings. As BIO sees it, some 95 percent of its 1,000 member firms do not yet have a product on the market. The sum total of these firms’ raison d’être so far is their healthy patent portfolios, BIO says.

Since most of these companies rely on venture capital to survive, a law like HR 3967 will likely cause a majority of them to wither on the vine because VCs are easily spooked by legislation that even hints at leaning on their interests. (Paradoxically, though, the bill may help the five percent of BIO’s members who already have products in the marketplace because they rely less heavily on their patent portfolios.)

“I get nervous any time there is a discussion” about bills affecting genetic-data patents, Feisee says. “If there is a shaky patent portfolio, or if there are people monkeying around [with] patent law … at every turn and making it unpredictable … then investors will go elsewhere.”

“That is the kind of unpredictability that is fatal in our industry,” she cautions. “To be able to patent gene sequences and other data is not so that we can grow more. It is so that the industry can survive.”

— Kirell Lakhman


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