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Patents Biotech Science

2009 Nobel Ribosome Structures — Patented 168

Posted by timothy
from the would-you-like-to-place-an-order dept.
tabascoj writes 'The announcement of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry is the latest reminder that fundamental components of biology are being increasingly, and aggressively, patented. A commentary, from yalepatents.org, focuses on the research and subsequent patents, held by Yale and Thomas Steitz, one of this year's laureates.'
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2009 Nobel Ribosome Structures — Patented

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  • How is this ethical? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ground.zero.612 (1563557) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:16PM (#29673223)
    Better yet, how can I patent my own DNA?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by matt4077 (581118)
      Maybe by investing 20 years of your life and millions of dollars to find something that will lead to a process that allows you to create antibiotics that save millions of lives. You can then patent that process and those antibiotics. For 20 years. Oh, and the royalties go to your employer who financed your research and will invest it into more research.

      Yes, it's an evil evil broken system.
      • by Evil Shabazz (937088) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @03:34PM (#29674159)
        I would posit that patenting your research for commercial gain should exempt said research from Nobel Prize eligibility.. but that's just me. In Nobel's will, it's pretty clear his award was meant to encourage the advancement of mankind - not the advancement of a company's balance sheet. The two motives are pretty exclusive. Either you've done the research and are making it publicly available to all of mankind - or you are keeping it for yourself and only offering the benefits of the research to the select individuals who can afford it. If you're patenting it, your motive is profit.
        • by matt4077 (581118)
          How is that exclusive? Nobel himself patented dynamite, and only with that money could afford the prize, which certainly is a benefit to society. Anything a company legally sells is a benefit to society. If that cancer drug is not a benefit for the patient, would he (or his insurance) not buy it? If that tomato weren't a benefit for you, would you buy it? In any transaction that's not illegal (i. e. both sides are free to refuse to make it), both sides increase their utility. Of course there are exceptions
          • by vux984 (928602)

            it's pretty obvious by now that well-regulated companies acting in their self-interest ultimately further mankind's goals.

            Sure. Well regulated companies might. But there lies the flaw. If the regulations were working properly companies wouldn't be patenting the fruits of basic research nor stuff they just found in nature. These are not well regulated companies. And the fact that they have lobby groups the size of congress, with budgets to match, helps ensure the regulations stay broken.

          • by s73v3r (963317)
            Capitalism does not work in humanity's best interests. It works in the best interests of itself. Occasionally those interests may overlap, but not very often.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Bazar (778572)

              No capitalism doesn't work FOR humanity's best interests, however that doesn't mean their work doesn't further the advances of humanity.

              Thinking of some of the greatest inventions of last century, the light-bulb or automobile. Both were made by great inventors, both drastically changed the world, both were made with profits in mind, and both had patents on their inventions.

              Anyone who thinks that its wrong to make money for advanced research should get a clue on how the world works.
              The same can be said for a

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          It has nothing to do with motive, it has to do with effect. If it benefits mankind it qualifies. Who cares if the person profits from it at the same time? Would you begrudge someone recognition just because it profits them in some way?

          That's a sure way to cut back on advancement several tens of years or more.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Canberra Bob (763479)

            It has nothing to do with motive, it has to do with effect. If it benefits mankind it qualifies. Who cares if the person profits from it at the same time? Would you begrudge someone recognition just because it profits them in some way?

            That's a sure way to cut back on advancement several tens of years or more.

            Many on here would. It reminds me of a saying: a capitalist and a socialist are walking down the street and a man drives past in his Ferrari. The capitalist says "I hope one day I have a Ferrari like him", the socialist says "I hope one day he has to walk like me".

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by Jedi Alec (258881)


              It has nothing to do with motive, it has to do with effect. If it benefits mankind it qualifies. Who cares if the person profits from it at the same time? Would you begrudge someone recognition just because it profits them in some way?

              That's a sure way to cut back on advancement several tens of years or more.

              Many on here would. It reminds me of a saying: a capitalist and a socialist are walking down the street and a man drives past in his Ferrari. The capitalist says "I hope one day I have a Ferrari like hi

      • by ultranova (717540) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @04:00PM (#29674539)

        Maybe by investing 20 years of your life and millions of dollars to find something that will lead to a process that allows you to create antibiotics that save millions of lives. You can then patent that process and those antibiotics.

        The question here is should you be able to patent the DNA itself? You didn't design it, in fact you had nothing whatsoever to do with its existence, you merely figured out how it worked - which took 20 years and millions of dollars. Obviously that effort should be rewarded, and just as obviously you can't possibly own a (very important) part of me, this not being ancient Greece or not-so-ancient USA.

        Anyway, I don't think that Nobel prices should be given for patented work. After all, the whole point of the price is to reward improving humanity, but patents already supposedly do this.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Volante3192 (953645)

          The question here is should you be able to patent the DNA itself?

          That is not the question here, though. They've patented a method to analyze ribosomes, not the ribosomes themselves.

          Anyway, I don't think that Nobel prices should be given for patented work.

          So, if I go check out the thread on the physics prize ( http://tech.slashdot.org/story/09/10/06/1427237/Father-of-Fiber-Optics-Wins-Nobel-Prize [slashdot.org] ) I should see this argument there too?

          Anyway, everything is going to be patented now regardless. Due to how cu

          • When i was working with a Grant from the NIH, I was expressly forbidden to get a patent on any of the work we did.

            When a university or company say they want to be rewarded for the 20Million invested, that is often Public funds from the taxpayer... Who now must pay more for the next step of the work cus the methods to study it are now patented.
        • Anyway, I don't think that Nobel prices should be given for patented work.

          Um, winners of the prize in Literature don't all of the sudden have to turn their works over to the Public Domain. Why is this different?

      • by Kizeh (71312)

        Even if it was funded with taxpayer money? Even if the patent prevents or significantly hinders companies and other universities from furthering the research?

    • by mspohr (589790)

      Better yet, how can I patent my own DNA?

      Don't worry about it... someone else already has patented it... you need to pay up or they will disconnect your DNA.

  • This is sick! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Finallyjoined!!! (1158431) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:18PM (#29673253)
    I'm going to go down there & patent shit, then sue any sod that has a crap.

    What's the world coming to?
  • by Thantik (1207112) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:18PM (#29673257)

    How can you patent something that nature already patented itself millions of years ago? Hasn't the patent run out yet?!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      ... cover not only the process for determining the structure of the molecules, but also the computation used to design new antibiotics.

      You can not patent ideas or discoveries. But you can patent applications/machines. And if you live in a weird country, algorithms.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wizardforce (1005805)

      It takes significant R&D to determine these structures and it seems that the patent office considers the discovery of a pre-existing biological component to be deserving of protection as much as a designed system for that very reason. It's indicative that we really should get around to reforming the patent system.

      • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:40PM (#29673555) Homepage

        It takes even more to visit other planets. Should Mars become the patented intellectual property of the people running the Mars rover program?

        The significant R&D is irrelevant to the patent process. A guy inventing things at his kitchen table with coat hanger wire is more eligible for a patent than someone who discovers the workings of nature.

        We should reform the patent system.

        • by matt4077 (581118)
          It takes even more to visit other planets. Should Mars become the patented intellectual property of the people running the Mars rover program?

          That's basically how the American West was explored: you take the risk of going there, if you survive, you own a piece of land. And ownership last forever, unlike patents that expire after 20 years.
        • by syousef (465911)

          It takes even more to visit other planets. Should Mars become the patented intellectual property of the people running the Mars rover program?

          Don't give the greedy fuckers any ideas!

      • the patent office

        The US patent office. Mind you, if you're in a country that doesn't respect WTO/US patents, it doesn't matter.

  • Not Very Noble (Score:4, Informative)

    by sexconker (1179573) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:22PM (#29673315)

    Insert tired old joke about Nobel/Noble.

    In Nobel's own words:
    "The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind."

    Seems to me someone shouldn't win for doing something that benefits their pocket books first, and mankind second.

    Angry emails to the Nobel Foundation, GO!

    Postal address: The Nobel Foundation
    P.O. Box 5232, SE-102 45 Stockholm, Sweden
    Street address: Sturegatan 14, Stockholm
    Tel. +46 (0)8 663 09 20
    Fax +46 (0)8 660 38 47
    E-mail info@nobel.se
    comments@nobelprize.org

    • Re:Not Very Noble (Score:4, Insightful)

      by dmartin (235398) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @03:07PM (#29673843)

      Except that from the quote form Nobel, the benefit to pockets of the inventors does not factor into it.

      The piece of the sentence

      "The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes

      states that
          i) that the prize should be distributed annually
        ii) some logistics dealing with the estate.

      So Nobel's statement is, in essence, that we should give the Nobel prize to those who, in the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.

      In comparing two discoveries we need to compare their relative benefit to mankind; the benefit of the individual is completely and utterly irrelevant. That is, it is irrelevant if the individual (or individuals) benefited more than mankind as a whole; nor does it matter when comparing the two discoveries which group made "more" out of their discovery pre-Nobel prize. Nobel's sentiment is solely concerned with the benefit to mankind.

      To be blantent and explicit about it, pretend for a moment that "benefit" was an actual quantifiable measure. It is not, but we can still look at the logical structure of the statement. If we have two discoveries A and B with
      A: mankind benefit: 500 personal gain: 800
      B: mankind benefit: 505 personal gain: 2000
      then "B" has greater benefit to mankind of these two discoveries. The last column is completely irrelevant. (BTW, personal gain will probably always exceed mankind benefit as the scientists gain the same benefit you or I would, plus whatever recognition etc. in their field, other prizes, awards, grants, etc. The only way I could see personal gain being less is if the personal sacrafices involved were worse than all the other benefits to the individual).

      If you wish to argue that a patented discovery lessens the value to mankind as a whole, by all means go ahead. But the argument that you have presented simply does not hang together -- Nobel makes no comment (at least with the quote you have provided) about the discoverer's personal gain.

      PS. If you did want to argue about something mentioned in Nobel's statement, it is that Nobel prizes typically don't go within a year of a device conferring the greatest benefit to mankind.

      • by migla (1099771)

        Reminds me of the BSD/GPL license discussion. I like GPL. Nobel would maybe have been in the BSD-type camp?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by s73v3r (963317)
        The thing is, does locking down a discovery so only one company can actually use it reduce the benefit to mankind? Many people would say yes.
        • One company using it still gives more benefit to mankind than none, which would be the case if there was no incentive to do the research in the first place.

          Or do you have some ingenious solution to the freeloader problem? Send us a postcard from Stockholm...

    • by lennier (44736)

      "Insert tired old joke about Nobel/Noble."

      This one?

      ""The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind using exclusively Nobel patented premium explosive products such as Dynamite(tm), Gelignite(tm), or a Bofors 40mm anti-air

    • Prizes to those who...have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.

      If that's the case, I'll have to dig through all of the checks for my patented penis enlargement pills to find the check from the Nobel Foundation.

      Oh wait, the invention has to actually work?!?

    • The excerpt you quoted says nothing at all about personal enrichment.
  • How (Score:3, Funny)

    by Dyinobal (1427207) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:25PM (#29673345)
    How in the world do you patent something like this. I expect the people at the patent office see the patent request and are like "What the hell is this?" then a few guys pass it around and all decided they dunno what it is. So they shrug "Must be new" out comes the patent approved stamp!
  • patents... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:26PM (#29673353) Journal

    New rule: you can not patent anything that you yourself did not create. No patents should be granted for any component of a naturally occuring system. Create an entirely novel system that doesn't exist in nature? Fine, have at it. On a separate note, it seems to me that with all the trouble we seem to be having with our 200+ year old patent system, that we ought to be able to devise a better system for encouraging innovation.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Mendokusei (916318)
      That has always been the rule. A naturally occuring phenomena is what is known as a "judicial exception," and is not eligible for patent protection.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Random2 (1412773)

      New rule: you can not patent anything that you yourself did not create.

      So, does that mean I can patent my children? Maybe they'll give me a Nobel peace prize for it too.

    • by toppavak (943659)
      Don't give them ideas! At least patents eventually expire now.
    • Re:patents... (Score:5, Informative)

      by matt4077 (581118) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:40PM (#29673551) Homepage
      New rule: you can not comment on something you didn't even bother to read. It's processes to find or design antibiotics targeting the ribosome that were patented, not the ribosome itself. You're creating millions of ribosomes each second, and you haven't been sued yet, have you?
    • by melikamp (631205)

      I believe that patents reduce the total utility of discoveries for the society. Instead of rewarding past inventors with monopolies, we should reward future inventors with grants. The decision to reward a researcher with a grant should be based on many relevant factors, among them the history, the standing, the proposal. All know-how should be in the public domain, period.

      The outcome would be better in every respect. Inventors would still be encouraged by monetary prizes (to what degree, no one can comput

      • Take everyone's favorite example of an area where the research is said to be too costly to conduct without patents: drugs. I call major bullshit. We, consumers, end up compensating big pharma in full for all research, all marketing, and, if rumors are true, all the coke they blow with their monopoly money.

        By that logic it doesn't cost any money to build a hotel, since all the money comes from the people who stay there.

        You do understand what "up front" means?

  • Anyone know how many years the patents hold? TFA doesn't say.

    Also, what are you prohibited to do in research? Is it a big problem? Why not move to Europe for researching?

  • by rwv (1636355) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:33PM (#29673455) Homepage Journal

    But should research so fundamental to life, such as the ribosome structure, be locked up for commercial gainâ"like Dynamite? Should a private institution, such as Yale, have the only say over how ribosomes may be developed into new biomedical technologies?

    No, research should never be locked up. The patent system should evolve to the point where laymen with appropriate field knowledge and the right tools can copy ANY patented technique.

    Yes, Yale absolutely has a right to decide what they do with their patent. If they sit on it, that's fine. There are other methods of doing what they learned to do. If the license it, that's fine too. Giving businesses the ability to benefit from their basic research is a good thing.

    If Yale accumulates a big enough patent portfolio and tampers with the free market, they should be subject to government investigations and penalties. But in the case of Yale... they'll license to patent to bring in money to fund more fundamental research to future Yale scientists can advance the state of the art even further.

    If the author really wants to attack stupid biological patents, he should investigate (correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the biggest offender is) Monsanto.

    • And if someone does not license out a life-saving patent at reasonable prices, it should not just be government's prerogative, but also their duty to take control of the patent and license it out.
  • by Volante3192 (953645) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:34PM (#29673461)

    From the article, ...cover not only the process for determining the structure of the molecules, but also the computation used to design new antibiotics.

    Now, this might not be saying the whole story, but it doesn't sound like the ribosomes are what's being patented (which would result in ire here). Instead, it's a technique of how to find what molecules and bindings are used by the ribosomes (or something along those lines.)

    The second part, the computation, probably a little more evil, but again it's a little light on details.

    I could probably do a patent search and see exactly what the abstracts are...but I doubt I could understand them without a tl;dr and a chemistry glossary.

    Basically, there's undoubtedly something patentable within this process it's just a matter of making sure they've got the right thing patented. I don't see anyone patenting a gene or a molcule here so there's no "nature made this already" defense. Furthermore, I don't think anyone can exactly make an "obviousness" claim here; USPTO might be pretty lax about prior art, but I'd think the Nobel committee would be a bit more thorough about trying to locate prior research.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      You're onto something. I'm a chemist, so I can understand the patents without a tl;dr. What they've patented is a method for making high-quality crystals of ribosomes for x-ray analysis and the crystals (and this is key) produced by that method. Here's an analogy. I invent a new type of generator and I patent it and its products (electricity from that generator). Nothing wrong with that. Two days later, /. runs a story with the headline 'Crazy man patents electricity.' Aaaaaand scene. But in all ser
      • Kind of spoils the importance of the discovery, guys.

        The importance of the discovery was spoiled when something that should never have been patentable was patented.

        And yes, I understand the patents too.

  • by H0p313ss (811249) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:34PM (#29673469)
    ... at least read the summary carefully. They didn't patent the natural structures.
    • Try reading the patent. The structure is the only thing in the dam patent that is not prior art. This is patenting standard lab techniques that most lab folk know and do on a regular basis. Check out some of the comments further up.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... from anyone who patents what they won them for. The prizes should reward altruism, not greed.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Volante3192 (953645)

      Then strip the prize money from the award too.

      Anyway, what would stop a pharmecutical from taking the method, getting their own patent for it and suing other people who use it into oblivion? In a utopia, you might have a point, but I'd rather Yale hold these patents than Merck, Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline.

      • Is there anyway to patent something then effectively void it as if the duration was up thus preventing anyone else from patenting and locking it up?

        • Sure - just provide a fee-free, unrestricted license. Patenting something means you control it, including setting it free.

  • Michael Crichton wrote a novel in 2006 called "Next" which addresses this issue, the sloppiness of laws regarding genes, genetics and patents, it is kind of on the mark with this topic. In that novel, a man's genes are patented by a company who is conducting a trial, and the company steals his child, claiming "intellectual property". Kind of precient, and scary stuff.

  • Misleading Summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cabjf (710106) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @02:37PM (#29673519)
    It's not the "fundamental components of biology" that are being patented. It's the new methods of manipulating and studying them. I don't really see the problem. Patents can be licensed and will eventually end. It costs a lot of money in R&D to do this research. Why should an organization bear this cost out of the kindness of their heart? Isn't this pretty much the point of the patent system? To promote the sharing of new and novel ideas while still protecting the inventor's/researcher's work?
    • by JackL (39506)

      I'm with you that it is not the "fundamental components of biology" that are being patented. What I do not understand fully is what is being patented? The articles are rather vague when it says, "cover not only the process for determining the structure of the molecules, but also the computation used to design new antibiotics." It seems like Steitz et al are hardly the first to grow these crystals. See: co-winner Ada E. Yonath. Also, it seems like the computation is more of a software patent. Do we hav

      • by Volante3192 (953645) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @03:13PM (#29673913)

        The article is very light on details, unfortunatly. I was personally hoping for a layman's description of what the patents constituted but instead it felt I was just reading an anti-patent tirade. But what was overlooked in the article is that they didn't patent ribosomes (which it sounded like what the author was trying to imply), but they patented a method for analyzing their structure.

        The irony is this could be one of the best cases FOR having patents. Yale spends millions on research, makes a breakthrough, licences it out to Big Pharma and as a result Yale is able to get funding for more research.

        I just wish there was more detail on the patents themselves rather than someone arguing against patents in general to make a better determination on how evil, to use the local patent buzzword, these patents actually are.

    • It's the new methods of manipulating and studying them. I don't really see the problem.

      The problem is the word "methods." Methods, of any kind -- business methods, software methods, scientific methods, etc. -- should never be patentable. Ever.

      They want to build a specific machine that implements these methods, and patent that? Fine. But here's what they're claiming:

      1. A method of growing a crystal of a 50S ribosomal subunit from Haloarcula marismortui comprising: (a) isolating a 50S ribosomal subunit fr

  • Remember: the primary valid purpose of patents is to allow the recapture of investment capital plus additional profits in proportion to the utility of the discovery.

    If making these scientific discoveries is highly capital intensive, then patentablity is both useful and desirable because it encourages initial investment; eventually the patent will expire.

    So, I would argue the key question isn't the nature of the discovery, but rather the necessary investment to make the discovery. A logical corollary is that

    • by Fnord666 (889225) on Wednesday October 07, 2009 @03:59PM (#29674525) Journal

      Remember: the primary valid purpose of patents is to allow the recapture of investment capital plus additional profits in proportion to the utility of the discovery.

      I disagree.

      The purpose of the patent system
      The historical purpose of the patent system was to encourage the development of new inventions, and in particular to encourage the disclosure of those new inventions. Inventors are often hesitant to reveal the details of their invention, for fear that someone else might copy it. This leads to keeping inventions secret, which impedes innovation.
      - Ius mentis

      On Thomas Jefferson
      For Jefferson the purpose of the patent office was to promulgate invention, not protect them. These two reasons are why he formulated a policy for patents that encouraged invention but maintained restrictions on what could be patented. Thus he was able to be true to his beliefs and perform the duties foisted upon him by the Patent Act of 1790.
      - www.earlyamerica.com

      • by Syncerus (213609)

        By what means does the patent system "encourage the development of new inventions, and in particular to encourage the disclosure of those new inventions" ?

        When you quote "Inventors are often hesitant to reveal the details of their invention, for fear that someone else might copy it", to what do you ascribe the fear?

        My post described the lower level mechanism of the goals to which you refer.

      • by alexo (9335)

        The historical purpose of the patent system was [...]

        The current purpose of the patent system is to create artificial barriers to entry.

  • Hello, My name is Bob (Patent Pending).

    How long before we start patenting people....

  • i cant even say 'prior art' .... unbelievable. in america, right ? every shit works there. every shit.

  • David Goodsell does excellent illustrations and explanations of various biological molecules. Check out the molecule of the month at the RCSB [rcsb.org]. Among those is the ribosome [rcsb.org]

  • I was going to make a snarky comment that pretty soon we'll all be paying royalties for having living bodies, but then I remembered that I'm already paying taxes.

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