Robert Cook-Deegan, M.D.

Duke UniversityGenomics Poster

Genomics and Intellectual Property: Life in the Information Jungle

Tuesday, March 18, 2008
7:00 p.m. – Stern Center, Great Room

Controversies about gene patents and methods in genomics have led U.S. and international organizations to produce guidance about patenting and licensing genomic inventions. However, case studies show that patents are neither necessary nor sufficient for “some” kinds of genomic invention. The rich stories of genomic invention do not yield precise guides about optimal incentives for invention or to ensure broad and fair access to resulting goods and services.
The Clarke Forum Student Board generated this program.

Issue in Context

Since the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick, scientists have been experimenting with and modifying genes. As useful genes and gene fragments have developed, a market for these genes has emerged. Companies have invested and funded research to create desirable and useful genes. In order to protect their research investments, businesses have been granted patents for the genes they help create. Controversy regarding this practice of patenting living organisms emerged in 1980 with the Supreme Court Case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty. This case involved a scientist who sought to patent his creation of a bacterium with the ability to breakdown crude oil. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and in a 5-4 decision the Court ruled that artificially-engineered microorganisms were patentable.
In the years since, a debate about the effects of the Supreme Court decision has been gaining momentum. There are two basic sides to the argument, those who completely disagree with patenting living organisms, and those who do not find this practice ethically objectionable. Of those who agree with the patenting, there are two schools of thought: those who believe that genes and gene fragments are patentable if research has the potential to develop them into beneficial organisms, and others who contend that a gene should not be patented until its full physiological function is determined. Gene patents, as with all patents are issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). The patented aspect of the gene is its sequence and chemical composition. The problem that the PTO faces is the possibility of a flood of patent requests for manufactured genes.
Should the PTO grant too many patents, the greater scientific community could be hurt by patents acting as barriers to research. However, if they fail to grant a reasonable amount of patents, the incentive to conduct research and develop useful genes and gene fragments will be gone because companies will be unable to profit from their investment. Media attention to this has transformed the issue from that of practicality and investment into a debate about bioethics.

About the Speaker
Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan is the director of the Center for Genome Ethics, Law, and Policy at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy (IGSP). The Center was created in order to “foster ethically responsible and socially beneficial uses of genome science, while addressing the complex ethical, legal, social and political impacts of the Genome Revolution.” He is also a research professor in public policy and the department of medicine at Duke. Prior to this, Dr. Cook-Deegan directed the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship program at the Institute of Medicine (IOM), National Academy of Sciences. He also spent four years as the founding director of IOM’s National Cancer Policy Board. Also while at IOM, from 1991 through 2002, Dr. Cook-Deegan worked on issues ranging from mental health and cancer policy to tobacco control, to federal research and development budgeting.
Dr. Cook-Deegan also worked for the National Center for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health during its inaugural year in 1989 and as an acting executive director for a congressional bioethics commission in 1988. He graduated from the University of Colorado Medical School in 1979 and from Harvard College in 1975.
Currently Dr. Cook-Deegan also chairs the Royalty Fund Advisory Committee for the Alzheimer’s Association and the external advisory board of a four-site project on genetic testing for Alzheimer’s susceptibility. Additionally, he has chaired the section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science dealing with social impacts of science and engineering from 1997 to 1998. Dr. Cook-Deegan is also on the board of directors for Physicians for Human Rights, with whom he participated in human rights missions to Turkey, Iraq, and Panama.

Related Links
National Human Genome Research Institute
OYEZ U.S. Supreme Court Media Diamond v. Chakrabarty

Video of the Program