Robert Waterston on Gene Patenting
  Robert Waterston     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

It is complicated. The American system depends on people being able to sort of ward off the competition through patents and they won’t—the word is often that they won’t invest money unless they have that kind of protection. But the problem is, with DNA sequences, that it’s sort of like elements. It’s—you know, it’s information, we know it’s information. But we don’t know how to—the distance between that information and actually having something that will make money for somebody is enormous. And when you put a patent so deep into the system as onto the sequence itself all of a sudden you limit what everybody else can do with that sequence. You limit their motivation to do anything with it. Even if you’re an academic and you don’t want any money from it; you all of a sudden have to go through more complicated procedures to do it. Myriad Genetics in the BRCA 1 and 2 genes is a good example of the harm that can be done. I mean I think that there could be much more effective diagnostic procedures, much cheaper diagnostics developed, but they have a ring fence around that gene. And so nobody can do it. It’s important that they have the diagnostic—but they’ve got it so deep into the system that they prevent other explorations around it, and I think that’s the basic problem with DNA sequence is that it is so fundamental that the pathway from there to anything commercially useful is so indirect and so uncertain that it needs science and you can’t—science does not operate well with that kind of constraint.

Robert Waterston received his bachelor's degree in engineering from Princeton University (1965) and both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago (1972). After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, he joined the Washington University faculty in 1976 where he is the James S. McDonnel Professor of Genetics, head of the Department of Genetics, and director of the School of Medicine’s Genome Sequencing Center, which he founded in 1993. In early 2003 Dr Waterston took on the role of Chair of the department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was a recipient of the International Gairdner Award, the Genetics Society of America’s Beadle Award, the Dan David Prize, and the Alfred P. Sloan Award from the GM Cancer Research Foundation.

Waterston attended the worm meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Lab and in 1989 Watson supported Waterston’s proposal to use the worm as a model organism in the Human Genome Project.