Should genetic research be protected using intellectual property (IP) laws or does this approach stifle scientific collaboration and add costs?

After more than a decade’s experience in the field discussing and arguing about this topic, I have concluded that there is a middle way between protection and openness.

There can be no doubt that wrapping up research in an envelope of IP exclusivity can be particularly disadvantageous to developing and underdeveloped countries. New models have therefore emerged and will continue to evolve over the years.

A peek into the history of biotech shows that patents have certainly injected energy into the sector and helped it thrive. Success in this field often takes a long time to achieve, so stakeholders and investors need to know there will be some reward at the end of the process. This implies the need for IP protection.

But is it ethical to try to patent a gene? This is a complex philosophical issue and one of several questions addressed in the white paper produced by our Global Agenda Council on Genetics.

At the moment we have agreements like TRIPS (trade related aspects of intellectual property rights) that allow for flexibility in patents at the national and regional levels. But as yet there are no worldwide patents. Questions around IP remain hotly debated.

Genetics involves living beings, whereas patent law is used to dealing with inanimate objects. So the current laws struggle to cope. And given that the genome is finite; DNA sequences are naturally occurring products; and genetic variation between species is quite limited, the assignment of property rights seems inappropriate to many.

But there is a way we can use IP in an open and sharing way that enables innovation and inclusivity. For example, there has been a big investment in genetics databases that facilitate open collaborations and several new forms of licensing have been developed that provide more flexibility in how restricted or open licenses can be.

Big-spending public institutions have created custom licenses that allow for public knowledge to be widely shared when it is a matter of public good rather than of commercial gain, for example. And new consortia are fostering more open, collaborative ways of working.

IP protection for genetics doesn’t have to stifle innovation or disadvantage developing nations.

About the author: Anu Acharya is the CEO of Ocimum Biosolutions Ltd, former member of Global Agenda Council on Genetics and current member of the Global Agenda Council on Personalized & Precision Medicine.

Photo: Reuters/Phil Noble