I have attempted to chime in on a few blog debates about the Myriad suit and found two distinctly different takes on the subject. There are those who see the clear irrationality and inconsistency of allowing patents on disease genes, and then there are those who claim that without these patents innovation, and thus cures for diseases, will grind to a halt. The latter, clearly, get my goat.
Let's be clear, basic research flourished for decades (before Bayh-Dole, which I'll explain in a moment), and the corporate world did not suffer in the least. Consider the decades between 1945 and 1975. Corporate growth and wealth in the US was enjoying a rather steady uphill climb, even though at the time much of the basic research that was happening was publicly funded, conducted in universities, with no reward of patent available to university researchers. Somehow, the corporate world benefitted, the economy tended to grow, innovation proceeded apace, and technology improved. In 1980, Birch Bayh and Bob Dole had their bill passed, the Bayh-Dole act mentioned above, which allowed those conducting research with public money (NIH or NSF grants, chiefly) to profit through intellectual property rights to their inventions. This set off a flurry of grabs by universities for potentially profitable, blockbuster patents, like the famous "Harvard Mouse." Before this, of course, basic science was published in journals, made free and open for use by any and all who might innovate, and was often successfully turned into profit and property through actual inventions. But Bayh-Dole changed that, and some (like me, for instance) might argue, not necessarily for the better.
Patents on unmodified genes were another ripe field for plunder, and disease genes especially. These are the nuggets, because that's where the federal funds go: disease research, and if you can claim rights to a disease, you can get all sorts of profitable royalties. In my book, I call attention to Canavan's disease, which is one of those genetic diseases that strikes largely among Ashkenazi Jews, like Tay-Sachs. But while, as I argue, all gene patents (not just on genes) violate the "commons" that is the human genome (and genomes in general), it is the disease patents that are most troubling.
Think back to the 30 years between the creations of the NIH and NSF and the enactment of Bayh-Dole. Was that system stifling research? Did it require appealing to greed somehow to impel or prod along a lazy research community? Have things improved so much since Universities were encouraged to churn out patents to pay for the gaps created by the withdrawal of federal funding? Is it too late to turn back the clock a bit, and see if maybe it wasn't working just fine, before we decided that science required the lure of lucre to do what it had done for ages?
Call me a cockeyed optimist, an idealist, or worse, but I think science and industry had a pretty healthy relationship before the present era. The atomic age, the space age, the computer age, all had their geneses before Bayh Dole. I think we can afford to give that model another go. What say you?