Patenting Human Genes The Advent of Ethics in the Political Economy of Patent Law

Ari Berkowitz, Daniel J. Kevles


During the 1990s, Craig Venter a scientist at NIH, then at the private biotechnology company Celera, proposed to patent human genes whole-sale, knowing only their express sequence tags (ESTs). His proposal stimulated broad-based opposition within the biotechnology community, many of whose members feared that allowing patents resting only on ESTs would permit contpany's like Venter's to lock up many human gene patents. Venters proposal was rejected by the U.S. Patent Office as a violation of existing patent law, but it also elicited ethical opposition on grounds that the human genotne was a universal birthright that belonged to everyone. In the United States, ethics was held to have no place in patent law. In Europe, in contrary, ethical considerations were written into the Biotechnology Directive enacted by the European Community in 1998. Covering the patenting of human genes as well as other forms of biotechnological inventions, the Directive may force American biotechnologists to take ethical !natters into account if they want protection for their inventions in Europe

Key words: Human genes - Patents Ethics - Craig Venter Biotechnology - ESTs

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