Access to human genome should be patent-free

U.S. and Britain announce joint statement

The joint U.S. and British announcement in mid-March about human genome information could rapidly advance the technological breakthroughs made from mapping the genome.

Further, researchers involved in the Human Genome Project have an ethical obligation to keep their findings in the public domain, says Arthur Caplan, MD, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Leaders call for free access

In the statement, President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for unencumbered access to information on the human genome. Both leaders said keeping the information free would "promote discoveries that will reduce the burden of disease, improve health around the world, and enhance the quality of life for all humankind."

The United States and the United Kingdom are the leading nations involved in the Human Genome Project, which is funded in the states through the National Human Genome Research Institute. (For additional information on the Human Genome Project, see Medical Ethics Advisor, January 2000, pp. 1-8.)

Debate heats up over for-profit info

The plea for keeping the information free comes in light of the for-profit company Celera Genomics in Rockville, MD, claiming that the shared information — if kept public — would be used by its rivals. Celera is one of several private companies mapping the human genes with plans to patent chromosomes and license their information.

Both Clinton and Blair urged other scientists around the world to adopt the policy of free access to the information. However, inventions built on the information should be protected by law, both agree. "Intellectual property protection for gene-based inventions will also play an important role in stimulating the development of important new health care products," they said.