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Editorial:
Private genes and human heritage
Keywords:  Genemapping techniques, Policies/Programmes, Bioinformatics, Intellectual property rights, Relation public-private sector, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Correct citation: nn. (1999), "Editorial: Private genes and human heritage." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 40, p. 2-3.

This issue of the Biotechnology and Development Monitor is dedicated to the science of genetic information. The initiation in the late 1980s of the Human Genome Project (HGP, see the article by Lehmann and Lorch) to sequence the entire human genome not only kick-started a new scientific-technological endeavour, but also accelerated a paradigm shift in biological research. Today, most fields of biological research make use of genetic information, and genomics is heralded as the new life science. Yet the HGP is still at the forefront of both scientific development and expectations.
Public funding in the USA has largely laid the foundation for this endeavour. At the same time it has provided the infrastructure for private companies to develop even more advanced technologies, generating knowledge that now becomes proprietary information.
The race to sequence the human genome and the claiming of property rights on the results have turned out to be a mutually reinforcing processes. At present it is not entirely clear where this claim for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) will end; however in the USA the number of lawsuits regarding sequences of the human genome will certainly increase.
This conflict is symptomatic for an ongoing struggle that is easier to understand by looking at how the ideas of property and innovation have developed over the years in information technology on the one hand and in biological research on the other. In the past, agricultural research has generally been dominated by public institutions that made their products, for instance improved crops, publicly available. Today, as pointed out in the article by Pereira, proprietary knowledge that is generated in the private sector has gained prior importance for crop improvement.
At the same time, information technology products, especially computer software, are distributed free of charge. Here, inventors improve products that are openly accessible and try to gain remuneration, for instance, for extra services.
At present it seems that genomics is at the crossroads of these two different approaches towards innovation. This is symbolized by bioinformatics, which has become an important tool in this new field as the contribution by Pongor and Landsman describes. Since genomics relies heavily on information technology, it remains to be seen which road the proprietary issue will take.
Genomics is expected to spur synergy between the different fields of biological sciences and some enterprises even claim to integrate it into a ‘life science’ concept. Yet, even if genomics claims to offer a variety of unknown technological possibilities, there are more hurdles to cross before scientific advancement becomes a real product. In the contribution by Bijman, it is emphasized that technological synergy is only of secondary importance to marketing considerations.
Another important issue that deserves further consideration is the concern about patents on human genome sequences. There is worldwide discontent with the profit-driven appropriation of human genetic information. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted in 1997 the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights in which it is demanded that "the human genome in its natural state shall not give rise to financial gains." Instead, the declaration considers the human genome to be ‘the heritage of humanity’. Even though this effort to protect genetic information against profit-driven appropriation is praiseworthy, the underlying ethical implications are questionable; the genome of every human being is in the first place an integral part of her or his own body. Protecting this information for preserving ‘the heritage of mankind’ might well have consequences that are not necessarily in the interest of the person in whom this genome is embedded. As in the case of the population of Iceland (see the article on page 6 of this issue), there are many reasons why people distrust the examination of their genome. Therefore, irrespective of the property issues it is doubtful whether human genomes should be considered as genetic resources at all.



Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.

 


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