Because FLOSS is handy, isn’t it?

When patents threaten science

Posted by isilanes on January 30, 2007

I just read in the Science magazine issue of the first week of December an article by the same name as this blog entry (L. Andrews, J. Paradise, T. Holbrook and D. Bochneak, Science 2006 314 (5804) 1395). The online version (only available under subscription, I believe) can be found here.

The article demystifies the idea that patents are necessary to push the development, and warns about an already evident rise of patent abuse, particularly in scientific areas.

The article gives a very interesting example case:

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (of the USA. Where else could this happen?) has fined LabCorp for USD2M, because they disclosed to physicians a piece of knowledge allegedly patented by Metabolite Laboratories. The piece of info is that an excessive level of the amino acid homocysteine in human body fluids can be a signal of a deficit of B vitamin in the patient.

The Federal Circuit also held that merely thinking about the relationship between homocysteine and B vitamin levels (e.g., to develop new test types) would result in patent breach.

How stupid is that? No, skip that. Not stupid. How criminal is that? What kind of neo-con mindset is necessary to believe it is fair? Patents where not invented for that. Imagine the following situation: a physician meets a patient with a low level of homocysteine, but his/her hospital can not afford paying for that license. The physician knows that high homocysteine means low B vitamin, but can not prescribe the due treatment, lest a patent be breached. The physician must decide between diagnosing a B vitamin deficiency (and break the law), or let the patient suffer or die. If the result of conceding a patent is that a physician must be in such a situation, then, obviously, that patent was wrong in first place.


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