WASHINGTON -- Gene sequences with unknown utility andfunction should not be patented, scientists from 16 countriesagreed. The National Institutes of Health created a controversylast winter when it attempted to patent such sequences.

The scientists, including C. Thomas Caskey of Baylor College ofMedicine in Houston, were attending a workshop on"International Research Implications of DNA Patents" at theCongressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) last week.

While they had no objection to patenting once utility andfunction are known, said Amy Jaeger, a lawyer for OTA whoattended the workshop, they worried that patents onsequences of unknown function could prevent otherresearchers who might find genes that occur within suchpatented sequences from studying them.

The group also felt that the intellectual work of sequencingsuch DNA strands was not worthy of patenting. But most of theresearchers agreed that the possibility of patenting DNA ofknown function does not hinder collaboration amongresearchers from different countries.

"Most said that they have a very friendly working relationshipwith their (international) collaborators," Jaeger told BioWorld."It's just one more issue to decide as the research progresses."

Consistent with this consensus, most of the researchers saidthey did not even think about patentability as they begancollaborative research, said Jaeger. In fact, they viewed timespent to obtain patents as time away from the bench.

The researchers all said they would like to see an internationalagreement that would preserve the free flow of informationamong them, Jaeger told BioWorld. But they were very vagueabout the shape or terms of such an agreement, she said.

To that end, U.S. researchers already have one big advantageover others. In the U.S., patent law grants proprietorship to theperson who invents or discovers, and once an invention ispublished, one has a year's grace period to file for patentprotection. In most European countries, the person whopublishes first gets patent rights, regardless of who made thediscovery, said Jaeger.

And in some countries, one must file for a patent prior topublication because publication precludes patentability,complicating the situation. Furthermore, once an invention ispatented, "the information is held secret for 18 months. Formolecular biologists, that is several generations of research,"Jaeger told BioWorld.

Besides the U.S., researchers came to the workshop from Chile,Mexico, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Canada, Germany,Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel, Japan, Russia, Thailand, Braziland Australia.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.