Genes Without Frontiers

The so-called gene chip could revolutionize the way we treat cancer patients. That is, if biotech firms don't keep it out of doctors' hands.

The final decision will be rendered by the Northern California District Court later this year. Affymetrix is confident its rights to the gene chip will be established -- something that would mean the company effectively owns a vast new area of medical research. "Our patents are very fundamental to the gene chip. If we're successful in enforcing them, it will have significant ramification in the marketplace," says Affymetrix lawyer William Anthony. "If we win, it will be game over for Incyte."

But Dehlinger believes the court may not rule in Affymetrix's favor. "If it looks like one company has so much dominance that it's slowing everyone else down, that the patent system is starting to impede science, I believe the PTO will shift its policy -- if people raise enough ruckus."

When Affymetrix began its campaign of litigation, Brown's lab only intensified its "blast ahead" efforts: Worried that scientists would have limited access to the technology, Brown handed it out for free.

"We're just leveling the playing ground with the big boys by distributing the technology more evenly," says Joe DeRisi, the student who stepped up to help Brown complete the gene chip when Shalon left. "It's not fair for people to be victimized by corporate profit schemes when they can easily build the technology themselves."

So DeRisi has posted step-by-step instructions for making gene chips on the Internet. The "M-Guide" promises that, using mostly store-bought materials, anyone can assemble his or her own microarray-making robot for about $30,000. The methods are remarkably simple. "It's a no-brainer," DeRisi says. "You can do this in your garage, even if you don't have a science background."

In addition to the Web site, DeRisi and Brown have personally taught other researchers their techniques. Last November, they ran a workshop at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York at which 16 scientists spent two weeks learning how to make and use microarrays.

"The whole purpose is to enable and empower researchers and stimulate innovation," DeRisi says. "If researchers don't have access to microarrays, or can't afford them, how else will they make discoveries?"

Though Brown shares credit with Shalon in one Stanford-owned microarray patent, Brown has no financial stake in his invention. And as instrumental as he was in making the technology work, DeRisi doesn't stand to profit from it either. "If I were resentful, I think I would just quit academics and join a biotech company to make the big bucks, or start my own company," says DeRisi, who is now a fellow in biochemistry at UCSF, where his latest focus has been on using microarray research to combat malaria. "What are the companies working on, anyway?" he wonders. "With all the money they put into Viagra, we could have a cure for malaria by now. Millions die from malaria, but most of those people aren't rich. I'm doing stuff the pharmaceutical companies won't touch. We'll see who does better good."

Brown, too, believes the only worthy goal of scientific research is to benefit the public. "There are lots of peripheral things about being a scientist that can be a pain in the ass, like dealing with all the academic politics and having to apply for grants," Brown says. "Cynics will find this corny, but the bottom line is we are charged with a responsibility of trying to make the world a better place by helping people with science."

Brown admits he is on a "minor crusade" to change the way scientific information is shared. "I would always like to make a discovery public before a company can patent it," he says. "It rubs me the wrong way that people can own information and restrict its use, especially when companies try to commercialize it."

He doesn't regret passing up the chance to be a multimillionaire. "I think it's good for my kids that we don't have a lot of money," Brown says. "We're already doing very well. We have enough money to live in a condo in Palo Alto. How much more do we need?"

In May, at a Washington, D.C., ceremony, Brown will be awarded the prestigious National Academy of Sciences award in molecular biology. He will re-ceive a medal and $20,000 for his "intellectual leadership in ... the development of a reliable and accessible DNA microarray system."

But any mention of the Nobel Prize makes Brown uneasy, especially upon hearing Dr. Jeffrey's hope that he will win it. "If you print that, I'll just die," he says. "That kind of recognition is pure politics. It can put too much emphasis on the individual, and can taint the scientific community." The only award he seems proud of is a certificate taped on his office door. Presented by his staff, it proclaims: "Perfect Attendance Award (between 3:48-4:17pm) Feb. 30, 1999." Brown is notoriously late for everything, his assistant jokes.

Stanford Department of Genetics Chairman David Botstein -- Brown's boss -- was so impressed with Brown's work that he suggested they team up to make gene chips available to any Stanford researcher who needs them, such as Jeffrey with her breast tumor study. Brown and Botstein set up a microarray production facility, with Botstein agreeing to handle the bureaucratic part of the endeavor. "There's been a lot of lip service to how studying genes will revolutionize the way we do and think about science, but very few have done anything on the ground," Botstein says. "This business of DNA chips has been soured considerably by the restrictive behavior of the companies engaged in it. Pat has fought hard and effectively to disseminate the technology, which was a very laudable impulse on his part."

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