The patentability of living organisms opens a new debate

Publié le : 30 April 2014

 This week, the Haut Conseil des Biotechnologies (HCB) (Biotechnology High Council) organised a seminar devoted to the European policy of patenting genes. On this occasion, Le Monde interviewed Christine Noiville, President of the HCB Economic, Ethical and Social Committee. As far as she is concerned, the ethical brakes on the patentability of living organisms are “fragile”. Conversely, technical brakes must be taken into consideration because “patents must be reserved for genuine technologies”.      

With this seminar, the HCB wishes to point out, at the end of its first 5-year term, that the subjects it deals with are not limited to the environmental and health-related aspects of questions raised by biotechnology but also extend to social-economic impacts. Taking the current context into account, Christine Noiville wants to reopen the debate on the patentability of living organisms.            

Contextual elements. In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court quashed a patent on a human DNA sequence (Cf Synthèse Gènéthique du 15 avril 2013) in a judgement according to which “genes are products of nature and cannot, therefore, be patented”. Furthermore, the European Commission recently commissioned a group of experts to assess current legislation in force since 1998 on the protection of biotechnologies. HCB wants to help the public authorities to “redefine a European policy”

Appropriation of living organisms through private interests. In response to this problem, Christine Noiville points out that ethical obstacles in the name of human dignity do not pose a burden because, as far as she is concerned, human beings are not just about genes. Conversely, from a technical perspective, the patenting of living organisms should be restricted solely to “genuine innovation[s]” that justifies legal protection without blocking “access to genetic resources”. She notes that since patenting living organisms became an option some thirty years ago, primarily within the EU, there have been a number of spin-offs due to the liberal interpretation of the legislation. 

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