DNA Structure Co-Discoverer James Watson Weighs In on Ongoing Gene Patent Case

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 19 2012 5:48 PM

DNA Structure Co-Discoverer James Watson Weighs In on Ongoing Gene Patent Case

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Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson smiles as he attends a 2003 gala in New York City

Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

In recent years, most headlines regarding James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, have been related to his controversial remarks about gender, race, and sexuality. Just last week, at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin, he said of women in science, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”

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Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

But last month, he took a break from stirring the cultural pot to file an amicus brief (PDF) in the ongoing dispute over whether a company can patent a gene. In 2009, the ACLU and several other groups and individuals filed suit against the company Myriad Genetics Inc., which holds patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Myriad offers a test that looks for these two genes to determine a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Because it holds the patent, no other company can offer the test—in effect making it impossible to get a second opinion. In 2010, a federal judge ruled against Myriad, but the next year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the patents. Then, in March 2012, the Supreme Court set aside the finding and sent the case back.

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Enter Watson. His brief, filed last month, is technically “in support of neither party,” but he comes down decidedly against Myriad.

As Watson tells it, the question of patenting and DNA goes back decades. In a footnote, he writes, “Amusingly, after I gave my first presentation of our DNA structure in June 1953, Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist and inventor of the nuclear chain reaction, asked whether I would patent the structure. That, of course, was out of the question.” He continued to argue against patenting genes while working on the Human Genome Project the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, ultimately resigning from NIH in protest of the institute’s “decision to patent human genes.”

Watson argues, among other things, that “we would not want one individual or company to monopolize the legal right to the beneficial information of a human gene—information that should be used for the betterment of the human race as a whole.”

His stature may carry weight, but on the blog Patent Docs, Kevin E. Noonan responds to the brief critically, saying that Watson fundamentally misunderstands some of the relevant legal points.

Whether or not he sways court opinion, the brief is worth reading for its slightly gossipy tone. For instance, Watson complains about how in late ‘70s, he “had to defend recombinant DNA research from the attacks of the actor Robert Redford, who, along with the Environmental Defense Fund, raised money to stop experiments with recombinant DNA.” Coincidentally, just last month the Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote about another bit of scientific panic in the ‘70s in which Watson took part—this time, over IVF, to which Watson was decidedly opposed. “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world,” he predicted in 1974.

Via Genome Web.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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