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The American Journal of Bioethics 2.3 (2002) 13-15

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Open Peer Commentaries

Patenting Genes and the Public Interest

Dorothy Nelkin
New York University

Patents on genes and especially on DNA sequences, writes Rebecca Eisenberg (2002), are troublesome, for they pertain not just to tangible DNA molecules but also to valuable scientific information. Such patents may prevent the perception, use, and analysis of information and thereby harm the interests of the larger public. In this commentary I shall expand on this point, suggesting three ways in which the interests of the public may be compromised by current patent practices. First, patenting is affecting scientific practices in ways that may impede useful research. Second, patenting affects the information available to the public. Third, the rush to patent can influence the quality of medical care.

The Impact on Scientific Practices

Patent practices are changing the nature of science. The possibilities for commercial gain influence the type of research that scientists choose to do, encouraging a focus on projects of short-term commercial interest. The very possibility of patenting encourages secrecy in science, because companies that support academic research demand secrecy in order to protect potential patent rights. In a survey of 2,052 scientists in 50 universities in 1994 and 1995, David Blumenthal and his colleagues addressed the question of secrecy among academicians (Blumenthal et al. 1996). They found that academic researchers with industrial funds were four times as likely as those without such funds to report that trade secrets had resulted from their research. And rates of publication declined as the proportion of the research funded by industry increased.

Blumenthal also found that one of every five scientists had delayed publication of research results for at least half a year in order to protect financial interests. Scientists directly engaged in commercial ventures were three times [End Page 13] more likely to delay publication and twice as likely to refuse to share information than scientists doing basic work. Scientists with access to biological materials were less likely to give samples of those materials to other researchers. Even university students receiving corporate funds must keep their work confidential (Blumenthal et al. 1996). This can impact negatively on how students are taught—as well as their ability to have something to show to potential employers.

Eisenberg is especially concerned about patent claims on DNA sequences. By allowing a monopoly on information that could be a valuable resource for future discoveries, such claims may limit research, ultimately harming the interests of the public.

Impact on Public Information

Patent possibilities may also affect the communication of research results that can be of vital public interest—for example, information bearing on the safety and efficacy of a new drug or clinical procedure. Some clinical researchers, concerned about losing the support of corporate sponsors, have failed to disclose problems with new tests or treatments; others have overstated benefits. A 1998 analysis of 70 scientific articles on new drugs for treating cardiovascular disorders confirmed that scientists with links to industry were more likely to publish findings beneficial to their sponsoring companies. Ninety-six percent of the researchers whose studies found the drugs beneficial had financial agreements with the manufacturer, compared to 60% of those who were neutral and 37% who were critical (Stelfox et al. 1998).

Journal editors try to determine when an author or reviewer has a financial relationship or patent holding that would influence their judgment, but studies often fail to reveal if researchers have a conflict of interest. According to a 1996 study by Sheldon Krimsky, in 34% of 789 biomedical papers published by university scientists in Massachusetts, at least one author stood to make money from the results reported (Krimsky et al. 1996; Kiernan 1997). These authors either held a patent or were officers or advisors to the firm that was supporting the research. None of the articles disclosed the financial interests involved.

Medical knowledge is expected to serve the common good. As Krimsky put it:

This fundamental value that has survived through millennia of medical practice is superseded by the normative changes taking place in biomedical...


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pp. 13-15
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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