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Invisible genomes: the genomics revolution and patenting practice

Bostanci, A   Calvert, J

Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences   39 (1) 109-119

March 2008

In the mid-1990s, the company Human Genome Sciences submitted three potentially revolutionary patent applications to the US Patent and Trademark Office, each of which claimed the entire genome sequence of a microorganism. The patent examiners, however, objected to these applications, and after negotiation they were eventually re-written to resemble more traditional gene patents. In this paper, which is based on a study of the patent examination files, we examine the reasons why these patent applications were unsuccessful in their original form. We show that with respect to utility and novelty, the patent attorney’s case built on an understanding of the genome as a computer-related invention. The patent examiners did not object to the patenting of complete genome sequences as computer-related inventions on moral grounds or in terms of the distinction between a discovery and an invention. Instead, their objections were based on classification, rules and procedure. Rather than patent examiners having a notion of a genome that should not be patented, the notion of a ‘genome’, and the ways in which it may be different from a ‘gene’, played no role in these debates. We discuss the consequences of our findings for patenting in the biosciences.