When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the patentability of naturally occurring DNA samples earlier this summer, several pundits flagged the decision as a crucial point of inflection for the biomedical research sector. While the full effects of the ruling remain to be seen, it appears that those expecting biological patents to play a diminished role in the intellectual property system may have been a bit shortsighted in their analysis.
One of the primary concerns with patenting biological material is that entities could exercise their commercial rights to the detriment of public health interests. Such was the case this past May, when Dutch researchers patented an isolation of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus. Saudi Arabian officials asserted that this legal maneuver impeded their ability to develop homegrown diagnostic solutions.
In reality, the Dutch researchers had previously agreed to freely share their findings with laboratories around the world. Perhaps more importantly, according to New Scientist, they also asserted that securing intellectual property protection would be essential in convincing a pharmaceutical partner to manufacture treatments at scale and effectively reverse the global spread of the virus.
As Popular Science columnist Erin Biba recently suggested, the differential rates of biomedical innovation observed between the U.S. and Europe over the past three decades can be directly attributed to America's willingness to patent biological material. There are still checks and balances in place, however, which enable federal authorities to compel private drug companies to distribute their proprietary treatments royalty-free when public interests demand it.