Many companies and universities throughout the world are seeking to file patents on gene sequences and proteins. Questions remain, however, over the moral implications of protecting rights to property in this kind of way. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is holding a series of Roundtable meetings to consider the ethical and legal issues raised by this form of patenting and the implications for healthcare.

Research into DNA and proteins offers the possibility of many different kinds of developments in healthcare. New gene-based tests and drugs for a wide range of common diseases will be developed on the basis of knowledge about the human genome and the genomes of bacteria and viruses. What is the proper balance between public and private sectors in these developments? Will broad patents covering important disease genes such as the breast cancer genes restrict the development of affordable tests? What is the role of patent offices? Are they custodians of public good or servants of enterprise? Does the patent system actually encourage innovation in biomedical research?

These questions will be considered by the members of the Roundtable group. They have backgrounds in moral philosophy, clinical genetics, genomics, patent law, pharmaceuticals and anthropology. The Roundtable meetings will produce a Discussion Paper towards the end of 2000 which will aim to help the Courts, patent offices and policy-makers to develop public policy and professional guidance and to promote public debate.