WASHINGTON - Even though members of the scientific community can trace biotechnology's roots back hundreds of years, the general public didn't really begin catching on until high-profile issues like the Human Genome Project and the cloning of Dolly the sheep became front-page news.
More importantly, though, some decision-makers in Washington's legal community are now admitting they could use a little help sifting through the technology, and say they are open to dialogue among the federal judiciary, the private sector and other stakeholders affected by court decisions related to the biotechnology industry.
It all started about a year ago when Carl Feldbaum, president of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, had a discussion with his former colleague from the Watergate years, and now a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Stephen Breyer. The conversation focused on the need for an objective biotechnology resource for the legal community.
Subsequently, BIO and Ernst & Young LLP initiated the Bio Judiciary Project, which has been launched with the resource, "A Jurist's Guide to 21st Century Biotechnology."
On Tuesday, BIO held the first in a series of meetings to discuss topics that will find their way onto the website, starting with intellectual property. Other future issues could include regulatory topics, DNA testing and genetic privacy.
A roomful of lawyers were present Tuesday when the discussion focused on intellectual property. As part of his opening remarks, Feldbaum raised the point that since the project was announced in February at BIO's CEO & Investor Conference in New York, several journalists have asked how he intends to avoid a natural bias in the guide.
"I've been asked by journalists if we are trying to serendipitously influence judges," Feldbaum told attendees. "Others have asked how can this website be useful."
In the first place, he said, the website will be the subject of peer review, and even though it is being initiated by BIO and Ernst & Young, eventually it will spin off on its own and become a separate organization.
Meanwhile, Tuesday's meeting brought together a number of patent experts who discussed intellectual property from the standpoint of the courts, industry and government.
Among the speakers was Roy Whitfield, chairman of Incyte Genomics Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif.
He said Incyte is the leading patent holder in the United Stated. "We've raised millions of dollars since we were founded, and we've gotten close to making a profit, but mostly we've lost money. But it if hadn't been for the intellectual property system, we wouldn't have been able to raise money."
Since the sequencing of the human genome, Whitfield said the media often characterized the patenting of genes as some type of gold rush. "The press makes it sound like companies are grabbing patents and holding them in a corner so no one else can research them. On the contrary, if I've got a patent, I would be glad for others to do the research."
He took it a step further and said, despite media accounts, most other biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies want to share their patents for research purposes.
Others on the panel, including Rochelle Seide, an attorney with Baker Botts LLP in New York, said that while private businesses hold a great number of patents, universities own many as well. By licensing the rights, she said, universities make money to fund additional research.
However, Todd Dickinson, former commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property for the Clinton administration, reminded others that patents are issued only for a specific period of time, so anything discovered and patented before 1984 is no longer protected.