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Stanford bioethicists discuss pros, cons of biotech patents

Stanford bioethicist Mildred Cho, PhD, published an article yesterday in Science Translational Medicine about the pros and cons of patents in biotechnology. She and her colleagues described events surrounding the licensing of  the type of non-invasive fetal genome sequencing (also known as cell-free fetal DNA) technology developed in the laboratory of Stanford bioengineer Stephen Quake, PhD. A monopoly by a single company (or even a few companies offering similar tests) could be bad for patient care by pricing tests out of reach of most women, or by discouraging other researchers from building on the technique, they feel. From the article:

A monopoly on this IP [intellectual property] could limit intended benefits of the technology and may provide yet another example of how patenting and licensing practices can frustrate the successful translation of publicly funded research. Undesired consequences may include inflated prices, decreased availability, constraints on the autonomy of patients and health care providers, and limits on further validation or development of this testing.

Cho, who is the associate director Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, elaborated further to me:

Patent issues are very important in the translational process but not often discussed in the scientific community. We thought that the cell-free fetal DNA technology was a good (but unfortunate) example of how intellectual property policy can impede translation, even though the policies are intended to do the opposite.

Cho points out that unlike the development of a new drug, diagnostic genetic tests are relatively easy to bring to market and don’t require large amounts of private funding. But she and her co-authors feel that patents and licenses may be more likely to slow, rather than help, the translation of these types of technologies once they’re on the market.


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