March 3, 2017

Model Patents

A couple of weeks ago, Stanford University published details of the first complete computational model of an organism representing every interaction that takes place within it during its entire lifecycle. Whilst only a humble single-celled organism, this is a big step forward. It has long been the desire of researchers to be able to minimise in-vivo testing of products for obvious reasons, and having a full computational model of the organism is the only way to achieve that. It is a long way from a single cell bacterium to rabbit or human, but the first step is often the most important and it is impressive to learn what Stanford has achieved.

Almost simultaneously there were stories in the press relating to the revival of gene patent disputes between Myriad and Prometheus, with Myriad claiming that it shouldn't be possible to patent a naturally occurring product of nature such as a gene. It is easy to see the logic here with a ridiculous random example: if natural patents were widely permissible, then a food company might patent the use of tomatoes in its sauces and prevent all competitors (and consumers) from growing them or including them as an ingredient in anything, putting an end to domestic tomato plants in greenhouses nationwide. A gene is not an invention or a creation, but the tools to detect it certainly are. A patent covering the particular method for detecting that gene would be defensible, in my very naive opinion, but the gene itself is none of their business (unless they've modified it and it is the modification that is patented).

But this got me thinking - how long until somebody attempts to patent an entire organism, just as in the tomato example above - using the knowledge gained from research programmes such as Stanford's? With complete computational models of an organism developed, then the organism itself could (using Prometheus' logic) be fully described, patented, and subjected to restricted use accordingly. This already happens with modified organisms such as crop seeds that are in widespread use today, but in that case it is defensible because it is the modification that is being protected, not the entire organism. If Prometheus and its ilk continue to be permitted to patent natural products, we could soon enter a scary new world of patented plants and animals - or even a patent on the human form itself...

...time to stop watching sci-fi films. But its not as unreal a concept as one might initially think.

Topics: Bioinformatics