Maynard Olson on Gene Patenting
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

That was one thing that the Albert’s Committee didn’t get right. I heard Bruce talk rather recently about his recollections about that committee and he pointed that out as the outstanding failing of that committee is to identify how serious that issue was. There was no one on the committee. None of us had background in intellectual property. There was discussion about patents, about intellectual property but we failed to recognize how disruptive the aggressive use of the patent law was going to prove in this field. I think, I mean the Patent Office and the whole legal system surrounding it actually tends to do well when they’re given enough time. But I think the whole history is when things change a lot the whole technological milieu changes a lot it takes them a while to learn how to deal with new types of intellectual property. I think that goes way back, you know, to the steam engine and so forth, electricity—it just takes them a while, software. And it’s taken them a while here and they made a lot of mistakes and there should have been a much higher standard for the utility. To patent something, it basically has to be new and useful. A lot of scientists and even the public even more so grab hold of the “can’t patent life” aspect of the issue. And although I am sympathetic to why people have that feeling it isn’t really where the problem was. We’ve been patenting life for a long time. There’s a whole elaborate system set up which has worked reasonably well to patent for example varieties of plant that are sold for agriculture or for gardening. You know you develop a new rose and you can patent it. And it does what it’s supposed to do, it protects the investment. People have spent a long time breeding the rose so that it would smell better, be prettier than some other rose.

The problem wasn’t about patenting life. The problem was a failure to insist on not just novelty but utility. Every gene was new for a long time and so novelty was kind of trivial. The question is; was there a clearly defined utility? And vast numbers of patents were given without any real evidence of utility. And this simply didn’t serve the public interest.

I don’t see it as a moral issue. John Sulston, for example, is well known for seeing it as a moral issue. And I greatly admire John as a scientist and I even admire his idealism in the public sphere, but I don’t see it as a moral issue. It was not—the patent, I don’t even see the whole patent system as a moral issue. It’s an expedient. It’s a thing like the Federal Reserve’s rules for, you know, loans to banks or something. It’s supposed to serve a social interest and patenting genes in the way it was done didn’t.

But the damage is not going to be lasting. These patents are going to expire. Most of them could not be defended in litigation now and we’ve moved on.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.