I apologize for the lateness of my post, but I wanted to talk to some scientists about their perspectives on OncoMouse. Mainly, this is to de-mystify some of the questions that we came up with during class.
A disclaimer: The scientist I interviewed is my father, Chuxia Deng. He did his postdoc with Phil Leder, who designed the modifications for the OncoMouse. He is the Chief of Mammalian Genetics at NIH, and develops animal models. I thought he’d be able to inform us on some of our misconceptions about how patents work in the Biotech industry.
Our discussion on Wednesday focused primarily on whether you can own life forms. The primary disagreement that all of us have had is that patenting life also means ownership over the progeny of these life forms, which is a problematic distinction because the owner did not independently create these progeny. And, if profits go toward the owner of these patents, that would seem counter-intuitive promoting scientific innovation.
To delve further into the issue of how the scientific field operates with biotech patents, Dr. Deng said that one further distinction we should make is how patents work differently in the industry and in academia.
The OncoMouse, for example, access to both processes and actual animals do not require a license. “For scientific research only, you can get it for free,” he said. But the scientist must state that “he will request the tool to only use in his laboratory and for research purposes only, and it will not be transferred to any third party without your permission.” The barriers to reaching others’ scientific data are far fewer in the academic industry, as well. He states, “For academic purposes, there are almost no limitations. In theory, you are prevented from doing it, but they are not going to hunt down academic institutions, since there are too many.”
But if you’re a for-profit company like Dupont (who owns the patent to OncoMouse), a license is necessary for obtaining legal use of the mouse. He says, “For profit purposes, you must pay taxes. You have to pay and buy a license, because you are using it for your own benefit.”
The additional dimension to the discussion helps to address the problems of owning transgenic mice who reproduce (addressed in Logan’s earlier post). Indeed, the beauty of having a patent on life forms is that you cannot curb scientific innovation that scientists control themselves; heterozygote oncomice who mate have progency that are 75% oncomice.
To tie this post back to intellectual property, let us return to the question about the ethics of patenting human genes. If the spirit of patenting is about stimulating scientific innovation and academic progress benefits from these developments, then is the act of patenting justified? For example, should it be the scientist who profits from the cultivating the cancerous cell line (HeLa) from a patient (Henrietta Lacks’s picture to the right)? The trade-off is that for-profit industries must apply for a license in order to profit themselves, but the ethical implications go beyond scientific innovation and begs the question: why should a scientist benefit from what a person was born with? Is it not her contribution to the scientific world that matters?
A world that disallows scientific patenting would mean the downfall of the private industry. This means that all research and innovation must be funded through the government, which would change the landscape of biotech drastically: no more sex-performance enhancing drugs, but no stem cells, either.