By Kevin E. Noonan --
Academics are useful people -- they provoke us to think and rethink our assumptions and the consequences of our institutions and practices, and can expand them in unexpected and frequently useful ways.
But they also tend to live in a world constructed within the boundaries of their own skulls, and rarely have the kind of practical experience that comes from building a business or making a product. That isn't intended to be a criticism (for the thin-skinned in the academic ranks), just an accurate description of different skill sets.
However, the anti-gene patenting debate, mostly championed by academics with philosophical objections to the practice, has serious consequences for U.S. innovation should their arguments convince policymakers to kill the golden goose of the golden age of biotechnology based merely on their philosophical objections. Making the case strongly to the contrary of these arguments is Jim Greenwood, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Industrial Organization (BIO), in an op-ed piece in USA Today (see "Opposing View: Patents Promote Innovation").
Mr. Greenwood starts, prudently, in debunking the most oft-repeated lie about gene patents: that they somehow give patentees ownership rights over human beings. Then he gets to the heart of the matter: that isolating a protein, or the gene that encodes it, makes possible the development of drugs to treat and cure disease. He explains that "[m]ore than 4,000 diseases are suspected to stem from mutated genes inherited from one or both parents," and thus provide targets for drugs against such diseases.
And this is not a mere pipedream: Mr. Greenwood (at left) mentions that "more than 200 innovative new therapies and vaccines that have helped extend and improve the quality of life for hundreds of millions of patients" have been developed thanks in part to gene patents. Taking cystic fibrosis (CF) as an example, he notes that since the CF gene was isolated "the average lifespan of a person with CF [has been extended] from 12 years to more than 40 years."
Mr. Greenwood also debunks the argument that gene patents somehow inhibit biomedical innovation with the facts, not from BIO but from a recent study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Department of Health and Human Services advisory committee and an earlier National Academy of Science study. Specifically, he notes that the HHS study showed that gene patents "are not the cause of access-related issues regarding genetic diagnostic tests," contrary to the allegations from the plaintiffs in the ACLU's anti-gene patenting lawsuit.
He also frames the issue starkly in terms of the almost certain consequences of a ban on gene patenting:
As head of the pre-eminent biotechnology industry organization in the world, Mr. Greenwood has extensive experience in the real world problems in bringing life-saving drugs to market. We should listen to him.