David Botstein on Gene Patenting
  David Botstein     Biography    
Recorded: 28 May 2003

The patenting is another one of these balancing acts. It says in the American Constitution—it’s actually one of the great innovations of the founders was the patent system. The basic bargain of patents, as I understand it, is that in return for a economic right you are obliged to publish your result. And so I think if somebody with private money discovers something about a gene that has utility and novelty and all the other requirements of the patent law, I don’t see a reason that biology should be exempt from patents.

That said, I think that patents of the form, oh, here’s a sequence in the alligator that might have economic value. I don’t know what that economic value is. I don’t know how to use it, but it is a sequence that nobody saw before, is a patent that a machine could apply for and I think that that kind of patent is at the wrong end of the balancing act. Where exactly the right answer is, is not clear. But I think at the very least there ought to be an invention there. And the invention needs to be more than just a novel sequence. That’s my position. I think actually that’s the position that’s coming out. And, you know, we would not have a biotechnology industry if there were no patents on biological items including genes and proteins. And I think adjustments need to be made.

The principle adjustment that is right now on the horizon is people like my friend Pat Brown who want to put all the proteins or antibodies against all the proteins on a chip. And in order to do that they need to express the proteins. And in order to express the proteins they, in some cases, need to get licenses for patents. And of course even if you pay everybody what they want and you want to put thirty five thousand proteins down then you have an insuperable problem. That’s a problem that is a creation of the current state of the patent law. That kind of thing is going to have to be addressed. And I think at the end of the day, you know, we will muddle through somehow because I don’t think that research not getting done is a realistic alternative. So they’ll figure out a way to do it.

I should say that the thoughtless enforcement of patents can and does hold up the progress of science. So, for example, the patent holders on micro-arrays have made it very difficult for academic groups to use commercial micro-arrays. And as a consequence of that, people have had to make their own micro-arrays, and that I think that has not been good, either for the company actually, that’s my private opinion, or for science. I think that it’s very important to understand that companies owe something to the general science infrastructure. And they should avoid getting in the way of—not their competitors—but of the people who are, as it were, maintaining the roads. That is a problem which again is a problem of our democracy. At the same time most companies do get this and most companies and most universities behave sensibly most of the time. And so I think it’s an unavoidably difficulty that- there’ll be conflicts between the rights that people have acquired by patenting and the needs of researchers.

Well, patents expire! Patents have a relatively short lifetime. For example, quite a few years ago there was a big boom for gene therapy. Everybody went out and patented the bejeezus out of gene therapy and now most of those patents are likely to expire before anyone has done any gene therapy for profit. And that’s maybe a good thing. I think that a lot of that is likely to happen. These very large-scale patents and the business plans of the hostage-takers are all really presumed upon the idea that you will be able to exploit these inventions or patents in a very short period of time. And there’s no sign that that’s actually going to happen except in a very small number of cases. Against that you have to understand that there are a number of major life saving drugs that would not exist were it not for the ability to patent. Some of these very same kinds of materials. So I think it’s a balancing act. I think that an ideological position on either side is probably not right

David Botstein is a prominent geneticist whose advocacy for gene mapping was crucial in laying the groundwork for the Human Genome Project. Botstein received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan for his research on bacteriophage synthesis. As a member of the MIT faculty he continued working with phage P22 DNA and discovered many bacterial and yeast genes. He served as Vice President of Science at Genentech before becoming professor at the Stanford School of Medicine where he led in sequencing the first large eucaryotic genome.

On July 1, 2003 he was appointed as Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University. At Princeton he will continue to expound upon genome projects, explore the relationship between genes within the genome, and uncover how diseases like cancer alter the expression of genes.

Botstein researched at the CSHL while on sabbatical from 1974-1975. At the 1986 CSHL symposium on Human Genetics he played a crucial role in advocating for the Human Genome Project. While serving on the National Research Council Committee he emphasized that money be laid aside to fund the sequencing of other simpler organisms with which the human genome can be compared. Like Jim Watson, he has passionately supported the Human Genome Project since its inception.