September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Will patents, especially gene patents, restrict new research and innovation? ...

DNA Lock

It is clear from recent trends that science is heading towards a more ‘open’ future. However there has always been an awkward relationship between scientific research and intellectual property. It is thought by many that patents restrict the dissemination of scientific information and hence limit innovation that could come forth from the research.

An example that has become most prevalent in the last few years is that of gene patents. An article published in Science in October 2013 highlighted the court battle between Ambry and Gene By Gene, two companies who were battling against Myriad Genetics. Myriad was the first to isolate the genes, which are known to be associated with breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2, and patented them in the 1990s. Since then, Myriad was charging more than $3000 dollars per test, but would this limit researchers from using these genes? The same article mentioned a recent study, which showed that patented DNA is 20-30% less cited in research papers than DNA that is available in public databases. The court eventually ruled, “raw human DNA is not patentable” as it is a naturally occurring phenomenon. This was much to the relief of researchers who believed that having the genes patented limited data sharing and innovation. The patent lawyers, however, saw no direct evidence for this.

Some researchers are putting all gene variants found in tests and experiments on public databases such as ClinVar. Their aim is to share the data they find and limit the duplication of research. Surely it is common sense that a naturally occurring phenomenon should not be patentable, especially when the amount of work that can be done on it is limited as result of the patent? The recent CRISPR-Cas genome editing system is predicted to give rise to a flood of patents and “present a moral maze”, as described by a recent article published in Nature Biotechnology. The CRISPR-Cas system allows researchers to introduce specific mutations – deletions, insertions or substitutions into target DNA. This would allow sequences to cross the ‘novelty’ factor of patents, as the CRISPR-Cas method changes DNA to a new sequence, which may be considered as ‘non-obvious’ if the resulting proteins have strange or unknown properties. The CRISPR-Cas system is likely to introduce patents in research tools, genes and proteins, microorganisms and transgenic plants and animals that are produced as a result of its applications. The first patent for the CRISPR-Cas system was awarded to The Broad Institute and many believe this is the first of a surge of patents using applications of the CRISPR-Cas system.

However, the CRISPR-Cas system may close as many doors in the future as it is opening now. The commercialisation of so many inventions in niche areas that is predicted from the CRISPR-Cas system may put off researchers when testing the applicability of a specific sequence or protein in different areas. This would slow down the progress of science and possibly limit the areas in which the CRISPR-Cas system could be applied in years to come. Researchers are now getting used to a new generation of ‘openness’ of data with the use of digital repositories such as Dyrad and figshare, which allow the depositing of data from scientific publications, making them freely reusable as well as citable. As highlighted in one of my previous blog posts, it has been shown that open data is cited more than protected data. The idea is to maximise innovation from the datasets in minimal time.

Some researchers, however, still choose to limit the innovations that could come from their papers and data due to competitive fears. An example of this is when researchers choose to not publish their articles under the CC-BY license and hence, limit the reuse of their findings. A recent series of tweets between Jon Tennant, an advocate of open access publishing, and the journal Nature, highlighted that scientists could even post their articles on a pre-print server to overcome the initial embargo that is used by subscription journals such as Nature and this has no influence on the decisions made by publishers about whether to publish the articles or not. As publication of an article can take a long time, pre-prints were introduced to allow a draft version of a scientific paper to be made available online without yet being peer reviewed. Pre-prints can thus be regarded as ‘grey literature’, but can work to speed up publication procedures, as feedback on an early-stage paper could be obtained from peers and used before submission or during revisions of a paper. A common pre-print server is arXiv, which is used by researchers from the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science and statistics; arXiv is used so widely that some academic journals allow submission of articles from the repository directly. Thus, it would be a great initiative, as mentioned by Jon Tennant in one of the tweets mentioned above, for journals and publishers to mandate pre-print submission of articles to enable access of articles even due embargo periods and hence speed up science.

However, @nature pointed out in reply to Jon Tennant’s tweet that the biology pre-print repositories seem to be less-widely used due to the fears of competition between biologists. Another factor may be that biologists are just less aware of these repositories. The tweet suggested that mandating the process of pre-print submission would “cause a massive cessation of submissions.” Perhaps this apathy of biologists in regards to pre-prints is why the pre-print server of Nature Publishing Group, Nature Precedings, stopped accepting new submissions in 2012. It will be interesting to see how the newly-established norms of openness and sharing pan out amongst biologists in years to come and how patents such as those that are a result of the CRISPR-Cas system limit or challenge these norms.


IMAGE: Secrets of the Fed