The recent technological buzz has been on Craig Venter’s recent construction of an entirely new cell completely synthesized from scratch. A basic overview of his thoughts can be found in this interview. Venter’s research is incredibly inventive. He created an entirely new architecture for life, or in his words, a biological operating system. As I have a bioinformatics background, I love the analogy to software that “genetic code is our software.” Venter’s synthesis of a cell by refashioning the basic building blocks of life in a novel sequence to produce a useful result is exactly what is done with software today. One sequence is read by the cell’s machinery, the other sequence is read by a computer. Such sequences are embodied in a concrete application. Both should be patentable provided they do not occur in nature.
The recent backlash against Myriad Genetic’s BRCA gene patents most likely stems from the fact that the gene is naturally occurring. Many people become uneasy at the thought of not being able to perform a test on your own biological material. It’s as if you don’t control your own body, and that is scary. Perhaps Myriad’s gene patents were improvidently awarded. Had Myriad somehow altered the gene, or constructed an entirely new gene, there would have been a different story. The result of the case is far from over, however, as appeals are now in the works.
One quote from Venter’s interview struck me as directly applicable to patent law: “We’re entering a new [technological] era that is limited mostly by our imagination.” The patent law system cannot limit this new era that is being ushered in. It needs to be flexible enough to promote this area of science.