You, Patent Pending: What a rare open data case study shows about open and closed genetic research

The bane of bad patents is well known throughout the software world, but a new study from MIT’s Heidi L. William looks at the cost of patents on genomic data, using the race t0 map the human genome as a rare case study.

Carolyn Y. Johnson has a great write-up of the study, and raises the regular argument: That biomedical research needs long patent lives to get funded, and that public research removes the financial motivation, decreasing breakthroughs.

The study found almost the opposite, however, when it came to research done on two sets of genetic data: The first set was done by a publicly-funded team that released all of its data freely, while the second set was created by private company Celera, which allowed academic use but required licensing agreements for wider distribution and product development.

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Interestingly, the study had the opportunity to look at the long-term impact patents had even when the information’s patent eventually lapsed, and the results were surprising.

Johnson writes:

Williams studied about 1,600 genes that were sequenced first by Celera and compared those with genes that were sequenced first by the public project, and made openly and freely available. A rough, back-of-the-envelope analysis shows stark differences in subsequent use of the two sets of genes: Celera’s genes were examined in an average of 1.2 scientific papers by 2009, compared with 2.1 papers for genes from the public project over the same time period. Three percent of the Celera genes were used in diagnostic tests by 2009, compared with 5.4 percent of the publicly available genes.

Then, Williams delved more deeply into the data, to avoid the biases that could emerge if the public sequencing effort simply happened to generate data on more interesting or biomedically important genes. As a result of how the public data were generated, some of Celera’s genes went into the public domain in 2002, and others went into the public domain in 2003.

The paper found that even a year delay in having Celera’s information put into the public domain had long-term effects on how the data were used. About 1,000 genes went public in 2002, and 600 went public in 2003. Over time, one would expect the gap in the research and commercialization of the genes to narrow, since both sets of genes would be publicly available. However, Williams found that did not happen.

In other words, patenting and restricting research, in this case, stifled advances for years. On the other hand, the Celera effort was able to spur genomic research forward at a much faster — and less costly — rate than the publicly funded efforts. It’s hard to assess the net impact of biological patents, particularly since the material being studied is the very building blocks of human life, but this provides an incredible and rare case study to at least begin understanding the costs and benefits, and the timing could not be better: Right now, the Supreme Court is taking up the case of whether genes, made by nature and studied by man, can even be patented at all.