Team:Paris Bettencourt/Patenting


However, in the past, we have seen commercial products and patenting coming out of ideas started in iGEM, although different methods and biological materials.

iGEM and Patenting

Started based on the idea of open science, iGEM values the sharing of knowledge through the sharing of research data, lab notebook and constructed part. That being said, participating in iGEM means signing a contract to give up the possibility of patenting anything coming directly out of iGEM competition.

Second, in the process, as a team, we have talked about and thought about continuing the project with more advanced methods and different bacterial strains and turning it into a commercial product. With this discussion, came the question of legal status. The research on patenting keeps the entrepreneur motivation open.

Why are we talking about patenting?

Since we are not supposed to patent anything coming out of this current stage of the project, why are we talking about patenting here? There are mainly two reasons.

First of all, ever since its establishment, biotechnology keeps posting questions to current patenting system. Just last year, we saw the federal court case of patentability of biological constructs. As synthetic biologists, we are curious about both the system and the underlined ethical discussion and wish to learn more about them using this iGEM project as a gateway.

To what extent do patent owners hold the right of limiting the use of the product? Should the derivative of a patented biological part be protected under the same patent ? Although those questions lead us to meaningful conversations and debates, we didn’t find much specific or useful information for our project. As hesitating as we were about how to go with it, we narrowed down the searching scope again to patenting related to bacteria, especially in cosmetics. Questions include “what kind of strain or gene can be patented”, “what is the premarket regulation”, “how long would it take”, and etc.

Questions we asked

Any kind of study related to genetically modified organism would not be easy, especially when people who are curious about perspective of bioethics conduct it. The research actually started as a research on GMO regulation and comparison of the US and European system. However, we were soon overwhelmed by the amount of information and the research was constantly slowed down by our daily debates about the culture behind different attitudes toward GMOs in different countries and how the future policy should be. Therefore, we cut down it to only questions about the patent system: is patenting encouraging science development or hindering it?

Nevertheless, while trying to talk to business owner, we did realize the reluctance of sharing too much information about, for example, their cream formula.

In our project, we use mostly Corynebacterium to study human body odor. Majority of Corynebacterium strains are patentable since they have been used for industrial application in the past, although regulation can differ for specific strains. As a matter of fact, there is an existing patent on isolated agaA gene and the formula of cream for growing of Corynebacterium bacteria. If we keep working on the same gene, we would only be able to patent our method of isolation and a new formula for method of nurturing. One interesting point about cosmetic product in the US is that there is not required premarket approval, meaning heavy regulation of safety usually happens after certain safety issue has occurred.

A patent of cosmetic product, if submitted directly as an European application under fast track, it will take about three years to be approved, while an international application use takes around 5 years.

Conclusion we drew

First of all, it is beyond argument that the start of patent was one of the most beneficial things to the development of science. The sense of ownership encouraged millions of researchers to create. It also established the link between business and research, which then initiated the growth of engineering and brought technologies into daily life. However, as science develops and the link between business and research gets stronger and stronger, patenting, especially in a new and fast-developing field like synthetic biology, becomes the hinder of effective problem solving in labs. We think the system of open science should be the dominant system in lab. At the same time, patenting in business encourages small-scale projects and attracts capital into biotechnology fields and is essential for the industrial development. On the other hand, since biological technology is linked, often, to human beings’ basic rights of surviving, the time length, application limit on the patent should be regulated in a way so that development of biotechnology in a certain country wouldn’t cause more inequality, especially in basic human rights, in the world.

Fortunately, synthetic biologists are mostly open with their study and happy to share resources. We have definitely taken advantage of the openness in building our project.

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