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By Graeme O’Neill
, Biotechnology Australia News

June 15, 2003 | Sir John Sulston, co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, isn’t shy about what to do with genome data. Keep them public, he exhorts. Nor is he shy about much else in his book, The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome, co-written with Georgina Ferry, published recently in the United States.

Sulston, the former director of the flagship U.K. genome center at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, is one of eight Nobel winners who will attend the International Congress of Genetics, in Melbourne, Australia, in July.  

The teams involved in the trans-Atlantic public collaboration recently signed off on a “fully joined-up” version of the human genome. Sadly, he says, it won’t include data from the rival private effort, produced by Celera Genomics. (The first draft of the public project was published in Nature in February 2001; Celera published its rival draft the same week in Science.)

“I do think it should remain in public domain. It’s not problem solving, it’s highly fundamental, descriptive stuff, like the periodic table -- basic information that everyone needs. But it’s absolutely appropriate to bind and wrap it up nicely, and maybe charge a fee for access. But certainly, the basic data should be available free,” Sulston says.

Sulston cites another, even more important reason why the information should be publicly available: “All the information has to be in one place, because the key process is constant comparison. We need to line up genomes from different species so researchers can make comparisons and exchange information freely.” Without comparative information, a genome is just so much raw data, and it’s difficult to identify the most significant differences between, say, human, mouse, and chimp.

“But even comparing the human and mouse genomes, we can’t say yet whether they differ in more than trivial ways,” Sulston says. “There are obvious differences in the immune system, and in the size of our brains, but I think many of the differences will come down to quite subtle differences in the timing of development, rather than in major differences between genes.”

Wright and Wrong
Patenting is an issue close to Sulston’s heart. “As a simple rule of thumb, patent law is about the difference between discovery and invention. If you make an invention, others can still make a better invention to the same job.”

Where inventions facilitate progress, Sulston believes very broad patents on key discoveries can inhibit it. “The ring-pull can opener was a great invention, but it was not fundamentally important to human progress -- anyone can still produce a better one.

“But from the early 1900s to 1917, the Wright brothers and [Glenn] Curtiss owned most of the patents on the airplane, and nobody else was allowed to build aircraft except them. In 1917, the U.S. government realized it was not getting enough airplanes out of their factories, so it took the patents away from them. There are loads of patents in the aircraft, but none are really fundamental. It should be so with biology.

“We should not be reaching into the future with pre-emptive patents. In the Royal Society, we’re having an interesting dialogue with patent lawyers, and we agree that a patent should be related to what you can do, not what you might do in the distant future.

“Stanford University, for example, has a very broad patent on cloning, but it decided not to be greedy: Even though companies must pay royalties, there is very little grumbling. The opposite case is Roche’s handling of the polymerase chain reaction patent -- they were greedy and restrictive, so companies broke the patent and took them to court.

“It’s very much a question of how patents are handled. Like many areas of human activity, you can’t enshrine everything in the law. You can’t write into law, ‘Thou shalt not be greedy.’ We have to think more about these issues because they’re increasingly important. The knowledge society is based on trade in ideas and information.”

Sulston says the current international dispute over the powerful new technology for gene silencing, known as RNA interference (RNAi), is a case in point: “For anyone to own RNAi on their own would be greedy and potentially inhibitory to progress.”

Sulston shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for work on development in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, and still works on the species. “I’ve made the argument very strongly that when you do something like this, it’s only worthwhile because of its archival quality -- it feeds into the research projects of so many other people.”


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