Genome Research Limited

How did patenting cause conflicts within the Human Genome Project?

Some scientists involved in the Human Genome Project upset the collaborative nature by trying to patent sections of the DNA sequence for their own financial gain. 

Despite the collaborative atmosphere established during the years of the Human Genome Project, it was not without its conflicts and disagreements.

Some scientists displayed differing ideas that threatened the progress of the project. Many were keen to achieve the scientific recognition of making an important discovery whilst also wanting to accommodate the needs of their corporate partners and make money!

Through patenting, companies could gain ownership over specific sequences of DNA or genes. 

Patenting was one way individuals were able to make commercial profit from the Human Genome Project. Through patenting, companies could gain ownership over specific sequences of DNA or genes. This meant the company would have full rights over that sequence, allowing them to decide who can profit from carrying out research on it (and how much they charge them to access it) and how much to charge individuals wanting to be tested for those genes.

Myriad Genetics patented the two genes associated with breast cancer BRCA1 and BRCA2.

One significant example of patenting was when Myriad Genetics, a molecular diagnostic company based in Utah, USA, patented the two genes associated with breast cancerBRCA1 and BRCA2.  BRCA2 was originally discovered by a team led by Mike Stratton, at the Institute of Cancer Research in London. Up until this point, Mike had been collaborating with Mark Skolnick and his team at the University of Utah. However, Skolnick went on to start a private company, Myriad Genetics, who filed for a patent on the BRCA2 gene in 1998. This put a restriction on any other scientists or clinicians having access to the gene or testing for that gene. Myriad Genetics hoped to use the rights from the patent to exploit the gene for medical purposes.

Remember Angelina Jolie being in the news after being told she had an 80 per cent chance of getting breast cancer?

Myriad Genetics’ patent on the BRCA2 gene means that testing for the gene is expensive (around $2,500 per patient) and requires a lot of ‘hoop-jumping’. Remember Angelina Jolie being in the news after being told she had an 80 per cent chance of getting breast cancer after undergoing an expensive test? That was carried out by Myriad Genetics.

Patenting altered the mood of the Human Genome Project. Scientists working to map human genes either secured patents on them, or were constantly looking over their shoulder, concerned that someone else would.

Another patenting conflict resulted in James Watson leaving his position as Director of the Human Genome Project in 1992. On the one hand, James was extremely concerned that patenting sections of DNA before anyone knew what their functions were could undermine the international collaborations that he saw as fundamental to the success of the Human Genome Project.

On the other hand, the scientists who were keen to patent the DNA sequences believed that without patents, potential licensees from US industry would have no interest in pursuing commercial development of the discoveries made.

In 2013 the US Supreme Court put a stop to patenting of the human genome on the grounds that human DNA is a ‘product of nature’.

Feeling that there was no way to resolve the disagreement without substantial conflict, James Watson decided to resign from his position in 1992 and pass the role on to Francis Collins.

These arguments continued throughout the project and beyond. It was only in 2013 that the US Supreme Court put a stop to patenting of the human genome on the grounds that human DNA is a ‘product of nature’. This decision struck down patents held by Myriad Genetics on two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer risk. 

This page was last updated on 2016-06-13