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At Washington Patent Panel, Academia and Private Sector Duke It Out

WASHINGTON, Sept. 24 - At a consumer-oriented panel discussion about the merits of gene-related patents, two salient points managed to bubble to the surface: Academic types and corporate folks may agree that patents are the linchpins of innovation, but they disagree over what R&D stage a patent should be awarded.


Though this debate may not be new, hearing it played out between Eric Lander, the Whitehead genome center head, and Scott Brown, the chief patent counsel of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, made for interesting theatre.


"Patent systems are essential if you want to have innovative drugs," Lander said at the panel discussion, which also included a former director of the US Patent and Trademark Office and a lawyer-cum-bioethicist. "But we shouldn't have willy-nilly patents."


Called "The Genetic Age: Who Owns the Genome?", the seminar was sponsored by Affymetrix and the Woodrow Wilson center, and took place at the center, located a few steps from the White House. Though it focused primarily on patient-related issues and other decidedly downstream points, the discussion occasionally meandered onto genomics.


Slumped in a comfy chair on the edge of the stage, Lander said he thinks the current patent environment hinders innovation by inhibiting researchers' ability to use early-stage gene data to do what he calls "the hard work."


Sequenced and patented genes are "packing peanuts," Lander said. By setting the patenting yardstick at the sequence level--that is, at the stage that individual sequences may be patented--USpatent regulations have slowed a scientist's ability to use that patented data to move R&D forward.


"This is a bargain between society and inventors," said Lander. "What would you rather have"--a nice family of sequence patents or a better understanding of what they do? Those patents, he said, effectively retard that development of that understanding. Eventually, it too will slow the development of better-acting second- and third-generation drugs.


Brown, for his part, argued that patents are the lifeblood of biotech firms, especially young, early-stage ones. "Without patents, venture capitalists aren't going to knock on your door," he said, adding that the first and last question VCs ask of startups is how many patents they have and how much do they protect.


"Private-sector investment [in biotechnology] isn't going to get going unless there is a return on investment," added Brown. "Patents play a huge role in this."