What’s the News: As a European court looks poised to ban the patenting of technologies using human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), a group of prominent scientists has issued a warning: regenerative medicine is never going to leave the lab if no one can make money on it.
A uPrint 3D printer in action
What’s the News: Earlier this year, designer Ulrich Schwanitz, a Dutch designer, made a real model of an “impossible” object—the Penrose triangle—using a 3D printer; he then started selling these models, through a company that printed them, for $70 apiece. When another designer figured out how to make a 3D blueprint for the shape, and put it up on Thingiverse, an open-source site for printable objects, Schwanitz lodged a copyright complaint against Thingiverse.
Although Schwanitz soon rescinded the complaint, it was the first instance where 3D printing ran smack up against copyright law. ars technica has an excellent piece looking at intellectual property issues that are likely to arise as 3D printing becomes better, cheaper, and more widespread, letting consumers create all kinds of stuff at home.
Here 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].
In a far-reaching judgment that could have major implications for the biotech industry, a federal judge in Manhattan has struck down patents related to two human genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Myriad Genetics held the patents, and women who want to find out if they have a high genetic risk for these cancers have to get a test sold by Myriad, which costs more than $3,000. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory [The New York Times]. In his decision, United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet found that the company’s patents were invalid because the genes are “found in nature,” and products of nature can’t be patented. In essence, he agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the genetic code contained in each human being’s cells shouldn’t be private property.
Tuesday’s decision, if upheld, could have wide repercussions for the multi-billion dollar biotech industry, which is built on more than 40,000 gene patents. Already, about 20 percent of the human genes have been patented. The decision, however, is not binding on other federal courts and other judges may or may not abide by it. But it does the set the stage for years of litigation over other gene patents. Myriad Genetics plans to appeal the judgment.