Worried that business secrecy may undermine scientific cooperation, an international group of geneticists last week appealed for a change of European patent policies to encourage scientists to release sequence data as quickly as robotic sequencing machines spew the information out. They also called on major human-genome sequencers to post their data on the Internet "immediately" after it is generated.
Current laws in Europe prevent an inventor from receiving a patent on a discovery that has already been made public. For that reason, companies that have invested in a major sequencing program in Germany have asked scientists to delay the release of DNA data for 3 months while the companies consider filing patents.
A statement issued by members of the international Human Genome Organization (HUGO) calls for a new global standard that would allow anyone seeking a patent to have a "grace period" of 1 year to prepare a patent application after announcing a discovery. U.S. law already permits such a grace period, and HUGO is asking other patent authorities to adopt the U.S. approach. The aim, the statement says, is to put "all participants in the international [genome-sequencing] network on an equal footing." If that balance were achieved, the HUGO group believes, even industry-sponsored researchers would post their data rapidly.
The statement, issued by a 10-member intellectual-property committee, also takes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to task for what it views as an ominous development in U.S. patent policy. HUGO's intellectual-property committee points to the views of PTO associate director Lawrence Goffney, who was quoted in Science (21 February, p. 1055 ) as saying he thinks patents should be granted on short stretches of genes known as "expressed sequence tags." The HUGO group asks the PTO to "rescind" this stance, because it could result in giving priority to the person who first identifies a small stretch of DNA, even if its biological function is not understood.