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Exploring science at the British Library

31 March 2014

Patently Obvious?

Katie Howe reports on the latest event in our TalkScience series.

It’s been a busy few weeks here at ScienceBL. We have hosted a total of nine events as part of our Beautiful Science events season, welcoming over 2000 people to the Library to explore all aspects of science from family science shows through to serious debate and geeky science comedy.

One of these events was the latest instalment of our TalkScience debate series. On the 4th March we welcomed a range of scientists, policy makers and patent experts to debate whether biomedical patents are a help or hindrance to scientific progress and society more generally.

The debate was chaired by Professor Jackie Hunter (Chief Executive of the BBSRC) who was joined by three expert speakers: Professor Alan Ashworth (Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research), Dr Nick Bourne (Head of Commercial Development at Cardiff University) and Dr Berwyn Clarke (biomedical entrepreneur).

L-R (Alan Ashworth, Nick Bourne, Berwyn Clarke and Jackie Hunter)

Down to business

The panel started by giving a background to the area from their point of view and sharing their thoughts on whether patents are necessary to encourage innovation or if they simply stifle scientific progress. There seemed to be two key, and often conflicting, issues at play here: firstly, the potential commercial benefits of biomedical patents, and secondly, their societal impacts.

First up was Professor Alan Ashworth. Professor Ashworth was part of the team who in 1995 identified the BRCA2 gene at the same time as the American company, Myriad Genetics, sparking a 20 year long patent war over licensing. He has previously spoken of his disappointment with the recent Myriad vs US Supreme Court ruling but was of the opinion that in areas such as drug development patents are necessary to allow investors to recoup the money invested. However, in his view the nature of genetic material is ‘sacrosanct’ and this should not be overridden by commercial considerations.

Dr Bourne shared with the audience his experience of working in technology transfer. He noted that the recent REF2014 (Research Excellence Framework) required universities to report on the impact of their research. Importantly, this included both economic impacts as well as societal impacts and Dr Bourne noted that patent protection can be useful in furthering both these aims.

Dr Clarke has a background in the pharmaceutical industry and founded the diagnostics company Lab21 in 2005. Dr Clarke was firmly of the opinion that biomedical patents are necessary as they allow investors to recoup some of the money they spent on developing the drug in the first place. He also noted that much academic research is funded by the revenue generated from patent exclusivity or patent licensing. Dr Clarke also reminded that pharmaceutical companies' raison d’être is to develop drugs to help people and it is not solely about making money.

Questions from the audience at TalkScience@BL

Invention vs. discovery?

In the second part of the evening, a question from the audience shifted the debate to the issue of defining whether something is an invention or simply a discovery. Making this distinction is particularly difficult in modern biomedicine where we are now able to mimic naturally-occurring molecules and pathways synthetically.  Dr Clarke noted that in order to be patentable an invention must be ‘non-obvious’. But Professor Hunter countered this by pointing out that the definition of ‘obviousness’ is often anything but ‘obvious’!

At the end of the evening, the consensus was that biomedical patents are definitely not ‘patently obvious’!

If you were not able to join us for the debate then you can listen to the podcast here. The next TalkScience event will be held in late June so stay tuned for further information. Meanwhile, you can get your fill of data visualisation goodness by coming along to the Beautiful Science exhibition, which is open until 26th May.

Katie Howe


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