Still patently unclear?

Way back in January I launched this blog with the news that I had just discovered that 23andme had filed for a patent on polymorphsisms relating to Parkinson’s Disease (see Patently Unclear). In that post I asked various questions about where this patent might fit in their efforts to find a way to make money out of consumer genomics and whether 23andme could reconcile that commercial drive with their intent to “democratise” genomics. I suggested that the company’s lack of public comment on their patent application was at odds with their democratic ambitions (and also at odds with public comments by co-founder Linda Avey on the evils of gene patenting). Well, now 23andme have finally gone public – they announced on Monday 28 May that they expected the patent to be issued the following day. The announcement (posted in the name of company co-founder Anne Wojcicki), is on their coroporate blog The Spitoon. It has already attracted one hostile comment from a customer and it will be interesting to see how the debate now develops. In the meantime, I have posted my own comment (which is still awaiting moderation), but you can read it here:

Dear Anne
As you acknowledge in your post, gene patenting is not without controversy. Certainly my experience suggests that this is an issue which attracts much attention – I blogged on your patent application way back in January and that post remains by far and away the most visited page on the Gene Values site.

The first comment on your post (from Arturo) clearly illustrates that your customer base may not be happy about your decision to file for this patent. In response you state that the patent was filed in order to facilitate work on a treatment for Parkinson’s and that 23andme “will not prevent individuals from getting access to information or prevent researchers from researching the target.” However, your patent application was wider than therapeutic applications covering risk prediction, diagnosis and prognosis. I have a number of questions:

1) If your intent was only to support therapeutic R&D then why does the patent cover diagnostic applications?

2) Will you try to prevent other companies selling Parkinson’s Disease tests for these polymorphisms, or, will you seek license fees from other companies selling Parkinson’s Disease tests for these polymorphisms?

3) Given your company’s avowed mission to “democratise genomics”, what were the participants in the Parkinson’s Disease study told about the intended commercial exploitation of discoveries arising from the study, and did you ask them what their preferences were?

4) Given the controversy surrounding gene patenting why have you not invited discussion and debate on this issue?

If, as you frequently avow, 23andme wants to “democratise genomics”, then this is the kind of issue on which you should be seeking feedback from your customers and the broader polity. It’s not a very sophisticated definition, but my understanding of what a democracy should be is a system where everyone has their say, and where what they say counts for something. Trying to reconcile that with a corporate system of decision-making may prove as challenging as trying develop a sustainable business model for consumer genomics but if you really want to democratise genomics (rather than just commodifying it), then that is the task you face.

Best wishes
Stuart Hogarth



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