Shobita Parthasarathy, professor of public policy at the Ford School, is keeping tabs on the upcoming International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Hong Kong. In her October 23, 2018 piece for Nature titled “Use the patent system to regulate gene editing,” Parthasarathy dissects the ethical issues behind the hotly-debated genome-modifying tool, CRISPR-Cas9, which, at the rate it’s being developed and implemented, will change evolution without giving policy a chance to catch up. Parthasarathy’s solution? Patents, and regulating them.
When it comes to gene editing and other biotechnologies, Parthasarathy says, our laws are already woefully outdated, cautioning that this history “suggests that such laws could be a long time coming, if they end up being formed at all.” She suggests a lack in understanding between governmental policies and the science they try to regulate, noting that when policies are enacted, they are often inadequate and “considerably more problematic in the context of gene editing.”
Parthasarathy notes that, while laws regulating biotechnologies are historically lacking, there is a precedent for effective patent management in other innovative fields. Parthasarathy writes that “the idea that governments could use patent systems to shape both the development of a technology and its impact on society is not new.” Gene editing, in some form, is actually already subject to some patents. However not all are government-led: CRISPR–Cas9 has inspired scientific organizations themselves to construct their own licensing agreements.
This doesn’t go far enough, insists Parthasarathy, advocating for the creation of “more-formal, comprehensive, government-driven regulation using the patent system,” as it would more fully cover gene editing, and formally establish communication between government and scientific research. It’s not a cure-all, Parthasarathy asserts, ending by stating that “ultimately, patent law will need to be just one of many regulatory schemes.”
Shobita Parthasarathy is a leading scholar on modern patent policy and the public interest. She is a professor of public policy and women's studies at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and serves as director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan.