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Patents the new threat to stem cell research

It's time to apply the lessons learned in the long fight over software patents to genetics.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

With the first approvals of new human stem cell lines, and the prospect of hundreds more to be made available for use in federally-funded research, it would seem that stem cell research has the green light.

But the next hurdle is already in sight. Overly-broad patents.

This is already starting to happen in the area of adult stem cell lines, the kind of research groups like the Family Research Council like to trumpet. Vitro Biopharma has already run to the Patent Office, seeking exclusive rights to important adult stem cell technologies.

Traditionally patents apply to a way of doing something, or a specific chemical compound. Patents are the pharmacist's friend. This is in contrast to the area of software, where not just methods are patented but entire concepts. Patents are the software industry's enemy.

What should be at issue now are not the idea of patents, but the breadth of patents. Vitro could patent its way of determining the "steminess" of stem cells, but if it is given control over the idea of the process that patent becomes a roadblock to other research.

Right now there are a number of important studies being done that could run afoul of an overly-broad Vitro patent:

All this brings up a second question to put alongside patent breadth. That is, international patent standards. A uniform standard on the breadth of a biological patent's claims could prevent a lot of dollar-sapping lawsuits down the line.

When you're dealing with genetic codes you're dealing with a form of software. This makes genetic patents different from those for ordinary chemical drugs. Control of the sequence can prevent innovation, when the whole intent of the patent process is to enable it.

It's time to apply the lessons learned in the long fight over software patents to genetics. The rights of researchers to profit from their work must be balanced against the rights of the next innovator, wherever in the world they happen to be.

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