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Latha Jishnu: The power and pain of gene patents


Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

There was groundbreaking news from Japan five days ago. Scientists from Kyoto University were awarded a patent for their discovery on how to produce stem cells from skin, the first stem cell patent granted in Japan. The special technology developed by the Kyoto University team, led by the renowned Shinya Yamanaka, creates what is termed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, versatile cells that have the potential to develop into any kind of cells, including human organ and tissue cells.

Great news, indeed, because it brings closer the hope of finding cures for diseases such as cancer and diabetes apart from its ability to replace damaged tissues and organs. Yamanaka’s stem cell techniques are considered far superior — and less controversial — than the process developed by the scientists behind Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep. The Japanese professor creates stem cells from mice and human skin without using embryos, the reason why he is hailed by the religious right from the Vatican to George W Bush.

Last week, there was additional cause for celebration, it appeared, because the patent has been granted to a university and not to a corporate entity. Kyoto University officials were quoted as saying that the move is aimed at preventing pharmaceutical companies from taking out a patent and then seeking money from researchers for their work — a valid concern as experience has shown. US drug companies have routinely used the basic research of public institutions to produce patented drugs, a move that often stops researchers from carrying forward their work. Here’s what Kyoto’s Naoko Takasu, who is in charge of intellectual property (IP) issues, had to say in a news agency report: “It is important for the university to keep the patent so it can conduct medical research and treatment at low costs in the future.”

Truly, a laudable idea. But before health activists who campaign against pharma companies begin their whoopees, a bit of caution. Are patents held by public institutions any less stifling than those held by pharma giants? Not really, says Richard Gold, director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy at McGill University in Canada and chairman of an international expert group that looked at IP issues, specially in biotechnology. In a just-released report, Gold and his colleagues say that IP rights held by companies, public institutions and traditional communities are stifling innovation and preventing lifesaving medicines and cutting-edge technologies from reaching those who need them the most.

The seven years of investigation and analysis that has gone into the study has prompted its authors to tell the biotech industry that it needs to learn from the IT sector’s share-and-grow approach. “The old IP approach of the biotechnology community has failed to deliver on its potential to address disease and hunger in both developing and industrialised nations. We need to do better and the IT world has shown us part of the solution.” Not all of the IT world, I would like to add, because it is only the open access and free software communities that have opened up new vistas of collaboration and innovation along with some companies like IBM. For the rest, of course, it’s not even business as usual but business that is fixated on tighter and tighter control on processes and programmes.

Gold’s report says the study of stem cell research has shown that those who patent the most are least likely to collaborate. In the context of Kyoto University, that observation raises some concerns. For one, the range and scope of its patent appear far too wide from initial reports. The university had applied for a patent in December 2005 after its first breakthrough on iPS cells from the cells of mice. A year later, it notched up another breakthrough by creating iPS cells from human skin cells. It applied for a global patent soon after this discovery including in it 24 types of genes useful for producing iPS cells.

There is, too, the extraordinary speed with which the patent, which runs till 2026, was granted. In May this year, it applied for another patent based on a four-gene method of iPS production and, according to The Yomiuri Shimbun, also urged the Japan Patent Office to hasten the process of examination. “In an unprecedented move, the patent was granted within three months,” says the newspaper. This is not to suggest that anything is amiss here although the haste does occasion disquiet. If Kyoto follows broadly the Gold committee’s recommendations, then the patent should not be a bar to more collaborative research and innovation. The report urges universities to promote greater access by using broad licensing arrangements and, more important, to look at technology transfer based on social returns rather than monetary gains alone. Is that asking too much of some exceptional Japanese scientists?

First Published: Wed, September 17 2008. 00:00 IST