THERE'S MONEY in them there genes, and the federal government is in a hurry to cash in. How else to explain the virtual gold rush it has begun by seeking patents for hundreds of human genes before even knowing what these genes actually do?
With a global market estimated to grow to $100 billion by the middle of the next century, biotechnology is undoubtedly important for America's future competitiveness. And as the recent fight between Genentech and a Japanese competitor over a genetically engineered heart drug shows, owning the knowledge of codes of genes will hold the key to profits.
But the National Institute of Health's move to obtain a patent for 340 genes from the human brain, and its plans to patent 1,500 additional genes, is a massive overreaction. While obviously meant to protect American interests, this premature push for patents will only slow the Human Genome Project, the $3 billion research project that aims to decode all the 50,000 genes that make up our genetic endowment. Besides, flying the American flag over bits and pieces of human genes is not the best way to nurture international collaboration that has been the hallmark of this project.
NIH's move has opened up a host of basic issues that will shape the future of this remarkable technology. These issues need to be thoroughly debated in public and scientific hearings before any policies are set.