U symposium looks at DNA patent debate

Todd Milbourn

Over the years, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has approved patent applications for inventions like Silly Putty, Post-It Notes and the pogo stick.
However, with recent technological advances, the USPTO is receiving patent requests for a different type of discovery: the sequencing of human DNA.
In a symposium dealing with the implications of privately patenting DNA information, a panel of distinguished national experts shared opinions Friday in Lockhart Hall in the Law School.
“This is one of the biggest issues of our time,” said Susan Wolf, a University law professor and moderator of the symposium.
An increase in government-issued DNA patents intended for private, commercial use has raised concerns among many in the scientific and legal fields.
The conference focused on whether patenting DNA discoveries ultimately limits research, medical advancement and public access or serves as an incentive to further genetic understanding.
“Patenting DNA forecloses access to people who don’t have money,” said Rebecca Eisenberg, a University of Michigan law professor and featured speaker.
“To not have public access would be a disaster for science and the human genome,” said Robert Waterston, a panelist and director of the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s going to take the entire community to make sense out of this information.”
Advances in DNA sequencing have the potential to improve disease diagnosis and treatment, as well as create a more abundant food supply and clean up environmental contaminants, the panelists agreed.
Private and public organizations are now striving to map the entire genetic code within the next three years.
Harry Orr, a panelist and University professor of human genetics who has patented DNA sequences in the past, said the debate pitting private patenting against public access is a double-edged sword.
“Free access is critical to understanding,” he said. “But we also have to acknowledge that research is made possible by intellectual-property protections.”
DNA patenting and other issues blurring disciplinary lines are forcing the University to broaden its approach to studying them.
The joint-degree program in law, health and the sciences sponsored Friday’s symposium. The new program combines a law degree with a doctorate or master’s in one of seven science-based fields.
The University has also received donations earmarked for interdisciplinary study to deal with specific topics, including DNA patenting.
For example, Cargill, a Minneapolis-based processor of agricultural and industrial products, donated $10 million to the University last fall to establish the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute. The institute will integrate research from the fields of molecular and cellular biology, digital technology, engineering, medicine and agriculture.

Todd Milbourn welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3214.