Professor Jackson gives inaugural lecture on controversial gene patent

Myles W. Jackson, Ph.D., Dibner Family Professor of the History of Technology and Science

Polytechnic is known for making technology and science history. Now, with the recent addition of Professor Myles W. Jackson to its faculty, it’s on its way to being known for its contributions to the study of the history of technology and science.

On April 10, Professor Jackson delivered his inaugural lecture as Dibner Family Professor of the History of Technology and Science titled, “The CCR5 Gene: A Cautionary Tale about Patenting.”

Welcoming energy and intellectual insight
President Jerry M. Hultin introduced the lecture by saying how pleased he and Poly are to welcome Professor Jackson’s “energy and intellectual insight” to the school.

Brent Dibner, son of the late David Dibner whose family’s generosity, as President Hultin says, “has made Poly a better place,” also spoke at the event. “I can’t tell you how proud my family is to celebrate the study of technology and science history [with Poly],” he said.

Before beginning his lecture, Professor Jackson explained why he decided to break with tradition and speak about current work rather than his past achievements. “This is a new phase in my career,” he said. “And a new phase for Poly.”

CCR5: a cautionary tale, the abridged version
This tale begins with Thomas Jefferson who as Secretary of State wrote many of the original United States patent laws with the aim of spurring invention in our budding nation.

It would’ve been impossible for Mr. Jefferson to predict that two centuries later the U.S. Supreme Court would decide that life forms “invented” in a laboratory were patentable. That decision, coupled with the start of the Human Genome Project 10 years later, sets the stage for the cautionary part of the CCR5 tale.

The pharmaceutical company Human Genome Sciences (HGS) of Rockford, Maryland received the patent for the CCR5 (chemokine receptor 5) gene during the heady times of the Human Genome Project when the promise of gene therapy replacing chemical disease treatments was at its height. Using computers, scientists at HGS compared the sequence of the CCR5 gene with others in gene databanks and recognized that it was a chemokine receptor. Their broad utility patent was based on chemokines’ general properties known at the time.

Unaware of HGS’ patent application, a number of scientists in five laboratories independently confirmed that the CCR5 receptor was the co-receptor for HIV-1 virus, which causes AIDS. Despite the fact that HGS’ patent application made no mention of HIV – indeed, the company was totally unaware of the fact when the patent application was filed – the company’s president, William Haseltine, expected to receive royalties from any for-profit company using that gene.

In addition, shortly after the patent was granted in February of 2000, leading biomedical researchers noticed that in a rush to file its application, HGS made four errors in the nucleotide sequence. These mistakes changed the amino-acid sequence of the protein. Hence, the actual protein corresponding to the patent sequence was completely different from the one recognized by the virus. The patent, however, would remain intact, as would any profits made by commercialized applications of CCR5.

Why is this significant? Some people with a mutated CCR5 gene have been found to be immune to HIV infection despite repeated exposure. In theory, if a drug or gene could replicate that mutation or otherwise “shut off” a person’s CCR5 gene, there’d be a serious blow dealt to HIV, and a serious payday for HGS and Euroscreen, which share a licensing agreement on the CCR5 patent portfolio.

What debates does CCR5 raise?
For Professor Jackson, the fact that HGS and Euroscreen could profit from an error as well as from such a broad utility patent is important. However, there are bigger questions that CCR5 – and gene patenting in general – raises for Professor Jackson.

How does gene patenting affect innovation? Will broad utility patent claims discourage others from carrying out future research? Has gene patenting actually fostered secrecy? Has the patenting of human genes actually rewarded mundane procedures and techniques rather than creative research?

The role of the history of technology and science at Poly and beyond
The irony of Professor Jackson’s lecture at a school that actively strives to patent the discoveries made in its bioengineering labs – in its Pfizer Auditorium no less – wasn’t lost on Professor Jackson.

For him though, Poly is the perfect place to raise such questions. He sees many shortcomings in the polarized issue of commercialization in science. “I want to give scientists and engineers a more sophisticated way to argue about these topics,” he said.

Avoiding “the scientific nostalgia of the good ol' days,” as Professor Jackson says, is also a crucial part to better approaching current debates in biotechnology and other controversial areas of research. He thinks that by understanding the historical context in which past discoveries were made, we can improve our thinking about today’s scientific and technological advances.

Professor Jackson  is currently working on a book and articles about the CCR5 gene. He received his Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge and has published over 30 articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries on the history of science from the Scientific Revolution to the present. His most recent work, Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians and Instrument Markers in Nineteenth-Century Germany (MIT Press), was released in 2006. His first book, Spectrum of Belief: Joseph von Fraunhofer and the Craft of Precision Optics (MIT Press, 2000) received the Paul Bunge Prize from the German Chemical Society for the Best Work on Instrument Makers and the Hans Sauer Prize for the Best Work on the History of Invention.