The head of the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine, Berlin, Germany and the president of Germany's main science funding agency have expressed concern over the awarding of broad patents on gene sequences. Detlev Ganten and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker are urging Wolf-Michael Catenhausen, the secretary of state for research, to explore ways of outlawing patents that cover all possible applications of a sequence.
The owners of a broad patent on a gene sequence could block the commercialisation of a newly discovered function of that gene, or demand a licence fee, say Ganten and Winnacker. They argue that such patents could stifle both basic research and competition for pharmaceutical innovations. The issue will be debated over the next few months, as Germany prepares to adopt a 1998 European Union directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions.
Meanwhile, in the US last week, scientists urged Congress to toughen standards for granting gene patents. The calls were made at a House subcommittee hearing - the first legislative initiative following President Clinton's promise last month to make it more difficult for companies to patent genes, according to a report in the Financial Times. The US and European patent offices have already granted hundreds of patents on human gene sequences, but there is disagreement on the extent of knowledge needed to gain commercial protection.
Sergio Traversa, a pharmaceuticals and biotechnology analyst, said that if standards were too loose, and anything was patentable, it would hinder progress in finding cures for diseases. 'But if they are too tight, there will be little economic incentive to establish important genetic information' he added.