Nobel laureate Sulston critical of 'greedy' IP

By Graeme O'Neill
Thursday, 24 April, 2003

History students and trivia buffs in the distant future time will be grateful for one of history's little coincidences -- the Human Genome Project will be completed this year, 2003, a neat half-century after the elucidation of the structure of DNA.

And 2002 Nobel laureate John Sulston, one of eight Nobel winners who will be at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne in July, believes it is proper that when the completed Human Genome Project becomes accessible on the internet later this year, its data will be for the world, not for profit.

Sulston, who directed the UK arm of the public Human Genome Project says the teams involved in the trans-Atlantic collaboration will sign off on "fully joined-up" version later this year.

Sadly, he says, it won't include data from the rival, privately funded project of US-based company Celera Genomics. When the first draft of the public project was published in Nature in February, 2001, Celera, led by Craig Venter, published its rival draft in Science.

Venter, whose own genetic blueprint is writ large in the Celera project, has since suffered the fate of Shelley's Ozymandias, the ancient king who sought immortality by building a giant statue of himself in the desert. Legal restrictions prevent Celera's data being melded with data from the private HGP, and the company's share price has plummeted from $240 to just $10. Sulston believes the episode has been salutary for companies that, with private profit rather than public benefit at heart, seek to restrict access to valuable genetic information or key research discoveries through the patenting system.

"I do think the data [from the HGP] should remain in the public domain," he told Australian Biotechnology News. "The project is very important, but it's not about problem solving or invention.

"It is fundamentally descriptive -- not unlike the periodic table of the elements. It's basic information that everybody needs, and it's absolutely appropriate to package it conveniently and perhaps charge fees for access to cover costs."

Discovering the differences

But Sulston says there is another very important, more important reason why the information should be publicly available.

Rapid advances in bioinformatics are allowing researchers to mine valuable information from the human genome, some of the most valuable insights are coming from comparative genomics. Without a public database, it would be very difficult -- and costly -- to determine what makes humans and other species unique.

"Al the information has to be in the one place, because the key process is constant comparison," says Sulston. "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 or chimp.

Sulston says he doesn't regard the chimpanzee genome project as being of pressing urgency, and says geneticists should not adduce too much from the 2 per cent difference in DNA between human and chimp.

Apart from a few inserted or deleted sequences, which "may or may not be significant" he says early signs are that the number of significant base changes in genes between the two closely related species might number as few as 10, and no more than 1000 -- but some of these changes may have been very important to their very different evolutionary trajectories.

"But even comparing the human and mouse genomes, we can't say yet whether they differ in more than trivial ways -- 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."

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 Curtiss owned most of the patents on the aeroplane, and nobody else was allowed to build aircraft except them. In 1917 the US government realised it was not getting enough aeroplanes 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.

"The problem is that patent law is woolly, and patent lawyers urge scientists or companies to write in as many clauses as possible.

"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 (PCR) 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 current international dispute over the powerful new generic technology for gene silencing, called RNA interference (RNAi), represents a case in point: "For anyone to own RNAi on their own would be greedy, and potentially inhibitory to progress."

Sulston, who won his Nobel Prize for his work on development in the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, 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 so the research projects of so many other people," he says.

"The Human Genome database is going to be there forever, and when you mortgage its value to the future, that's a very good thing. "How long will it be useful? There's an analogy with the dictionary -- more will continue to come out of it, as long as people still write in English."

Australian Biotechnology News is a major sponsor of the International Congress of Genetics. For more information, visit

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