I apologize for holding up my writing this month. I wanted to mention the reason why: it has to do with submitting a patent for one of my projects. I thought this would be a good opportunity to explain a little bit of the process as I’ve experienced it. I had what was almost a 3 hour long conversation with our patent lawyer last week and got a few of the insights into the field of patent law and how it relates specifically to biomolecules. This is the first time I will do this but I feel it needs mentioning: I AM NOT a patent lawyer myself. Though you may like my opinions expressed on this blog please do not take any of what I say here as legal advice.
Patents have always been, and always will be, a source of contention and defensiveness amongst scientists. You can look back to famous examples such as the long patent battles between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla for one example (1). Another more recent battle that I’ve brought up before is the fight between The University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University over the rights to CRISPr (2). But perhaps the oldest opponent bioengineers and biochemists have in patent battles is nature itself. Our patent lawyer explained to me that the first hurdle to clear in patenting a molecule is determining whether or not it could be considered “A Product of Nature”. This is to say, to some extent, molecules that exist naturally cannot be patented. Imagine if someone held a patent on the 20 essential amino acids themselves or on the four nucleic acids that make up our DNA! In my non-legal opinion it’s completely unfair to allow someone to try to claim a patent on something our bodies make naturally. The ways to get around this involve, for instance, patenting a process to purify these compounds rather than the compounds themselves. The main point, however, is that to secure a patent you need to make something new or to find a new way to make something old. If you can prove you are not cheating nature then you get the Intellectual Property; you get to decide who makes this produce or uses this process
The power of Intellectual Property and Patent Law has driven the field of synthetic biology, Big Pharma, and yes, even my “Molecular Yoga”. Scripps Research Institute points out, “Natural products remain the best sources of drugs and drug leads, and this remains true today despite the fact that many pharmaceutical companies have deemphasized natural products research in favor of HTP screening of combinatorial libraries during the past 2 decades.” (3). Note their use of the phrase “drugs and drug leads. A drug lead, or more commonly called a lead compound, is a starting point for biomedical researchers. These molecules can be altered and changed to improve the drugs by way of increasing the drug’s binding strength or decreasing side-effects (4). As our patent lawyer pointed out: THAT is what you can patent, as long as you can prove that such changes and alterations were not obvious or already present in small quantities in nature. This is why pharmaceutical companies are focused on screening or rational design of lead compounds; it makes them more easily patentable.
My job, in helping to craft this patent, is to turn what written for an upcoming paper into a set of claims on the patent. Part my discussion last week was determining what we felt we could claim related to our molecules. How, specifically do these molecules work? How are these molecules made? What variations, if any, can exist? Biomolecular patents can have dozens, even hundreds of claims. The goal is to make a patent as broad as possible such that someone cannot easily infringe upon that patent. Would-be infringers might take your molecule and alter it in some nominal way and claim it as their own work. If you can secure a patent with strongly enforceable claims, you can make money off of them through licensing, which will help you fund future research
When I started down the road of becoming a scientist I didn’t make patenting my work one of my main goals. I wanted to create new molecules, things that were useful, but not necessarily things that would make me money. In my opinion, patenting your molecules should be a means to an end, a way to sustain your research. There are a few colleagues of mine who’ve made millions of dollars from patenting simple biomolecules. I imagine it’s hard to prevent yourself from becoming consumed by the drive to make money over the drive to conduct research. They seem to be doing well though. They funnel a lot of that money back into their own lab. This model works especially well for a soft-money driven research facility based on grant-funded rather than tenured positions (something I’d like to go into at a later date). I was involved in creating another patent as a graduate student, which was subsequently accepted as a provisional patent. It appears to me that his work will be heading in that direction as well. I will keep you up to date with my feelings on patents and hopefully this will serve as a good reminder to myself if my views ever change drastically.
Thanks for reading again!