The Next Revolution Approaches

Bold headline, non?

Well, have a rummage through these links and you tell me if this is a big deal.

First the economist gives us a story about patenting and medicine (may be gated). The bottom line here is that natural laws cannot be patented though there are some loopholes…

For example, a genetic mutation can identify patients who are susceptible to a given disease or treatment. The mutation is a natural occurrence, as is the reaction to the drug. But the invention comes in connecting the dots between these elements.

Which aren’t as big as everyone thought…

Stephen Breyer, writing the court’s opinion, affirmed that Prometheus’s patents claimed a natural law and would restrict further innovation. Administering thiopurines, observing the body’s reaction and offering dosing advice did not add up to a patentable process. “Einstein could not patent his celebrated law that E=mc2”, wrote Mr Breyer. Nor could Einstein have patented the observation by “simply telling linear accelerator operators to refer to the law to determine how much energy an amount of mass has produced.”

The biotechnology industry did not expect the ruling. It is now in a minor panic. Personalised medicine inevitably includes the application of natural laws. It is unclear which applications may be patented.

The Economist doesn’t seem to come down hard on either side of this debate, even though it has been mildly skeptical of patents in the past.

Patents are tricky buggers. Have a listen to a patent skeptic, Alex Tabarrok, talk to Russ Roberts about them. Most patents and trademarks (especially) lie somewhere between trivially stupid and economically radioactive. The one kind of patents that seem to promote innovation? Ones on drugs.

Clearly we need to find a way to research these natural processes. And now that the results may well be in the public domain (I’m not a lawyer but I realize that that probably isn’t strictly, or perhaps remotely, true – just grant it to me for a minute), who’s going to pay for the data collection, analysis, etc?

Well, let’s start with the data: the same Alex Tabarrok from that excellent Econtalk interview linked above points us to a fascinating study (abstract and writeup) where a doctor did this to himself (from the writeup):

Snyder provided about 20 blood samples (about once every two months while healthy, and more frequently during periods of illness) for analysis over the course of the study. Each was analyzed with a variety of assays for tens of thousands of biological variables, generating a staggering amount of information.

…The researchers call the unprecedented analysis, which relies on collecting and analyzing billions of individual bits of data, an integrative Personal “Omics” Profile, or iPOP.

…To generate Snyder’s iPOP, he first had his complete genome sequenced at a level of accuracy that has not been achieved previously. Then, with each sample, the researchers took dozens of molecular snapshots, using a variety of different techniques, of thousands of variables and then compared them over time. The composite result was a dynamic picture of how his body responded to illness and disease — and it was a number of molecular cues that led to the discovery of his diabetes.

Ok, so a battery of tests can give us BIG DATA on our bodies just at the dawn of the age of our ability to swallow it.

Let’s pretend I know what I’m talking about and imagine the possibility of Kickstarter projects for accumulating giant biometric databases and Kaggle competitions to work out what they mean?

Now there’s a charity I’d donate to!

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