It is in patenting gene sequences that the divide between research to address health needs and research for profit is most clear. The extent of US patents granted on human genes is revealed in the 10 October edition of the journal Science. According to Jensen and Murray of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, approaching 20 per cent of human genes are now the subject of patent claims - some popular genes are in up to 20 patents. This figures does not include patents pending, non-protein coding genes or gene fragments in patents on 'SNPs' - single nucleotide polymorphisms. The impression created is one where patent lawyers are rubbing their hands together as they advise on arguments over ownership. However, whilst most of the debate on patents has related to patients' access to new genetic tests and treatments, a much bigger ethical question is whether the focus on science that is patentable means we are not doing the right research to address today's health challenges.
During the 1990s and into this century, policy makers in Europe and the US have made new demands on science to meets the needs of business. Whilst the public purse has been reluctant to fund near-market research, preferring to leave the profits to the private sector, generating the scientific knowledge underpinning commercially interesting areas has been encouraged. Biotechnology and gene-based medicines are attractive because they provide marketable products for the health care industries.
The health care industry, and pharmaceutical companies in particular, have long demanded special privileges to protect their products from being copied, arguing that research and development costs must be recouped. Patents on the basic knowledge of gene sequences have been made a prerequisite for gene-based medicine to progress. In the knowledge economy, biotech companies often get the most immediate value from their patent haul and promises, not actual products. So gene patents not only affect access to basic knowledge, they now, in a commercially motivated science world, shape what science we do.
As a result, building up the expectations for gene-based medicine is important for the conventional health care companies who are traditionally involved in lobbying and shaping the health agenda. However, with the exception of some single-gene disorders, the majority of illnesses are complex, with the environment and nutrition, or complex interactions between them and our biology, playing the most important role. Having a research agenda focussed on these factors, not obsessed with patentable knowledge about genes, may deliver much bigger benefits for health. Some new public health interventions would need investment with the potential for profits, by removing pollutants or designing 'cleaner products' for example. These aren't part of the conventional dialogue on health, so the out-dated and increasingly scientifically unsustainable attitude that individual genetic differences are the key to our future health remains.
If governments reflected dispassionately on what we know about disease and health, the current enthusiasm for genetics would look a bit thin. Unfortunately this seems unlikely as powerful interests are lined up behind persuading us that genes (monopolizable through patents) will deliver health. On examination, many gene patents are like the Emperor's new clothes and are lacking in substance, based on limited knowledge about function or false associations between a gene and a disease. Increasingly a health agenda based on such isolated pieces of 'genetic information' looks unconvincing. Sadly, while patent agents, pharmaceutical companies and academics argue over gene patents, many people will suffer from preventable diseases where genetic factors are much less important than the social, economic and environmental determinants of health.