Will Venter's "Synthetic Cell" Patents Give Him a Research Monopoly?

By Andrew Moseman | May 25, 2010 11:33 am

VenterHere in the United States, people are all atwitter about Craig Venter’s announcement last week of a new “synthetic cell,” and whether it constitutes creating life or simply a nifty new step in genetic engineering. Across the pond in the U.K., however, there are increasing rumblings of a more practical matter: Whether the patents that Venter is seeking to protect his work will bring a chill to genetic engineering research elsewhere.

Dr Venter’s [team] has applied for patents on the methods it used to create the new organism, nicknamed Synthia, by transferring a bacterial genome built from scratch into the shell of another bacterium. Synthia’s genetic code contains four DNA “watermarks”, including famous quotations and the names of the scientists behind the research, that could be used to detect cases of unauthorised copying [The Times].

Nobel winner John Sulston is the main man sounding the alarm (pdf); he argues that Venter is trying to obtain a “monopoly” on a range of genetic engineering techniques, which would prevent other researchers from freely experimenting with those methods. He’s also a familiar adversary to Venter. The two butted heads a decade ago when scientists were rushing to sequence the human genome.

Craig Venter led a private sector effort which was to have seen charges for access to the information. John Sulston was part of a government and charity-backed effort to make the genome freely available to all scientists [BBC News].

Venter found himself in another intellectual property vs. public domain flare-up in 2007, when a Canadian organization called the ETC Group challenged patents that Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, tried to file on the artificial microbe his lab had in development. After that public fight, Nature Biotechnology recognized the need for commercial biotech firms to protect their work, but called on national organizations and non-profits to continue putting as much DNA information as possible into the public domain so that research doesn’t get bogged down in a sea of legal battles.

This time around, the response from Venter’s organization is much the same as before: Relax, everybody.

In response to Sulston’s latest broadside, a spokesman for the J Craig Venter Institute told the BBC, “There are a number of companies working in the synthetic genomic/biology space and also many academic labs. Most if not all of these have likely filed some degree of patent protection on a variety of aspects of their work so it would seem unlikely that any one group, academic centre or company would be able to hold a ‘monopoly’ on anything” [Nature].

These fights will go on, and that’s a good thing: We need innovators, and we need agitators. While Venter’s work will push genetic engineering forward, and will likely make oodles of cash in the process, Sulston and others can keep questioning the balance of information power so it doesn’t all end up in once place.

Related Content:
80beats: Did Craig Venter Just Create Synthetic Life? The Jury Is Decidedly Out
80beats: Court Strikes Down Patents on Two Human Genes; Biotech Industry Trembles
DISCOVER: The Intellectual Property Fight That Could Kill Millions
DISCOVER: Discover Dialogue with Craig Venter
DISCOVER: The 10 Most Influential People in Science

Image: Amy Eckert

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
  • http://www.rheothing.blogspot.com John Spevacek

    Please no! Arguing about patents and how good/bad they are is the scientists’ version of arguing about abortion, religion or just politics in general. Lots being said, none of it new, none of it productive in changing anyone’s mind at all.

  • Dave

    Forget the critics. Venter needs to keep pushing forward.

  • geeta

    The only way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself. When you want to make money out of it, strategize it such that you get your profits before anyone can capitalize on it. Legal patents are a lazy man’s way of making a lifetime of profit on something not really unique and/or not undoable by thousands of others, not to mention feeding the lawyers. If your work is unique, it will patent itself, without wasting state money on a legal system to enforce it.

  • pbaker

    Venter is a powerbroker in genetic engineering. This is America. Although he is greedy and sneaky he is a winner. better to be on his side than against him , it seems. if he wants to make billions of dollars instead of being a poor scientist, what can you do?

    At least he will hire the best team to achieve his goals. There is so much work still left to do, at least he has the resources and leadership to make breakthroughs happend. These acheivements take alot of money. The American economy needs this guy and his company. Genetic Engineering is a great industry for America to be in.

    He’ll get the patents if he should get the patents. whether he is immoral for applying for the patents is secondary debate.

    John Sulston has a point, but is losing. He needs to fight fire with fire. study Venter or collaborate with him. Sulston can’t veto Venter’s patent application, claiming venter’s techniques should be free to others. Unless Venter didn’t come up with those techniques then the patent can be disputed and declined.

    Patents = Money = Genetic Engineering breakthroughs = More money

    technology is not free

  • pbaker

    If Venter is a troublemaker for applying for those patents then other Genetic Engineers need to apply for patents of their own. asking venter to restrain himself from patenting things that belong to someone else probably won’t do any good. Apply for patents as due diligence and get on with it.

    Progress is not ‘ideal or perfect’ in a rush for breakthroughs.

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