PatentsInHumans ERC Project commences

by | Mar 29, 2023 | Blog Posts

PatentsInHumans explores the bioethical implications of patents on technologies related to the human body

On the 1st November 2022, the PatentsInHumans project based in the School of Law and Criminology and ALL Institute at Maynooth University commenced. PatentsInHumans is large interdisciplinary five-year project funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. This project was one of 8 projects awarded to PIs based in Irish institutions,  under the ERC Starting grant scheme in 2021.  

This ERC funding will be used to build an interdisciplinary project team and will enable us to explore the core project research questions and aims, which span bioethics, science policy, law, and innovation. This team includes our project manager, Sinéad Masterson, and postdoctoral researcher,  Opeyemi Kolawole, both of whom recently joined the team, and who will be joined in future by further postdoctoral and PhD researchers. Together, we will work to tackle the central project research question, which focuses on investigating what are the main bioethical implications posed by patents over ‘technologies’ related to the human body, and how are these bioethical issues accounted for, if at all, within European patent decision-making.

Patents, the Human Body & Access and Delivery of Healthcare

Patents are a type of intellectual property right which give the rightsholder(s), the right to stop others using the patented technology for the duration of the patent – this is usually 20 years. Patent rights – depending on how rightsholders use these – can have significant impacts on how patented technologies are used and by whom, including impacting access to healthcare as demonstrated by the recent COVID-19 context.

Currently, under the European patent system, the human body itself is not patentable. However, technologies that relate to the human body are patentable: for example, patents are available on technologies that treat the body such as medicines or elements of a vaccine; on isolated elements of the body including, isolated human genes which are patentable in Europe, and on elements of technologies such as medical devices that can be integrated with the body. Patents granted over such technologies can pose significant bioethical implications, as the grant and/or use of such patent rights, can potentially affect how we can treat, use and modify our human bodies. This can also have important consequences for human health and wellbeing. Yet, the current patent decision-making system generally does not directly engage with the bioethical implications posed by patents and how they are used over such technologies.

Developing an understanding of Bioethics within European patent decision-making

PatentsInHumans ultimate aims are twofold. 1) To develop a comprehensive understanding of the extent to which patents over these types of technologies, and how they are used by rightsholders, pose bioethical implications. And, 2) building on this analysis, at an institutional level, it aims to reconceptualise how these bioethical issues related to patent grant and use over such technologies could be viewed and incorporated within European decision-making systems so that they become a key consideration. In doing so, the analysis has the potential to make important scholarly and societal contributions, including, implications for access and delivery of healthcare and related technologies.

To achieve these aims, PatentsInHumans is designed around three main project phases. Phases 1 and 2 are the conceptual and empirical phases, respectively, where the project will focus on developing an understanding of what is happening in the current system. During these stages, the project team will build an in-depth conceptual and empirical understanding of the potential bioethical implications posed by patents over a range of different types of technologies related to the human body. We will also use cross-disciplinary institutional framework to examine the European patent decision-making structures and influences on these, in order to understand to what extent such bioethical issues are or could be accounted for within current European patent decision-making. Whilst, in Phase 3 of the project, we will seek to reconceptualise patent decision-making so that it can better engage with bioethical issues posed by patent grant/use over technologies related to the human body.

In developing this analysis, PatentsInHumans aims to disrupt traditional conceptions within patent law, bioethics and innovation. It challenges how we view the role of bioethics within patent decision-making and how bioethical issues are considered within the innovation cycle for such technologies. It also seeks to encourage greater interdisciplinary conversations and scrutiny around the role of bioethics in patent decision-making.

We are very grateful for the support of the European Research Council in funding this project and look forward to working together on the research ahead!

(Note: This text first appeared in December 2022 as a post on the IDEAS in ALL Blog page of the Assisted Living and Learning Institute (ALL) here at Maynooth University.)

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