In theory, patents are supposed to encourage innovation. But as more companies own your genes, the whole business of gene patenting has been put into doubt. The real tragedy occurs when the right of a patent overrides the right of a patient. And this can happen when a company has an exclusive license, the patient can’t get a second-opinion test and is stuck with the one test. That’s exactly what the Myriad patent was doing.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (linked to breast and ovarian cancer) were licensed exclusively to Myriad Genetics, until the US Southern District Court of New York invalidated them. As Myriad appeals the court’s decision, the biotech community bites its fingernails, worried about what this means for the other thousands of genes that have been patented since the 1980s.
But as far as the old argument that biotech companies need patent protection for investment purposes and to keep research moving forward, Koepsell thinks otherwise. He actually thinks gene patents are not essential to development and the free market can work itself out.
Beyond the patent system, there are other ways to reward innovation. For more than a hundred years, the patent system has incentivized discovery, but this winner take all approach might be outdated. Caltech researchers found that the market economy can inspire more innovation than our patent system. Simply put, let investors buy and sell shares off their invention. Even if you do away with the patent system entirely, people would still invent. Creativity and intellectual curiosity are part of human nature.
He also discusses the future of genetic research — it's headed towards synthetic biology and away from nanotechnology. Building our own nature seems to be the way to go to do the things we think nanotechnology can accomplish.