PCR AND TAQ POLYMERASE: A Patented Research Tool for Which Licensing Arrangements Were Controversial

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology presents an interesting counterpoint to the Cohen-Boyer technology. Both are widely used innovations seen by many as critical for research in molecular biology. However, the licensing strategies for the two technologies have been quite different, and they were developed in different contexts.

PCR allows the specific and rapid amplification of targeted DNA or RNA sequences. Taq polymerase is the heat-stable DNA polymerase enzyme used in the amplification. PCR technology has had a profound impact on basic research not only because it makes many research tasks more efficient, in time and direct cost, but also because it has made feasible some experimental approaches that were not possible before the development of PCR. PCR allows the previously impossible analysis of genes in biological samples, such as assays of gene expression in individual cells, in specimens from ancient organisms, or in minute quantities of blood in forensic analysis.

In less than a decade, PCR has become a standard technique in almost every molecular biology laboratory, and its versatility as a research tool continues to expand. In 1989, Science chose Taq polymerase for its first "Molecule of The Year" award. Kary Mullis was the primary inventor of PCR, which he did when he worked at the Cetus Corporation. He won a Nobel Prize for his contributions merely 8 years after the first paper was published in 1985, which attests to its immediate and widely recognized impact. Tom Caskey, senior vice-president for research at Merck Research Laboratories and past-president of the Human Genome Organization, attributes much of the success of the Human Genome Project to PCR: "The fact is that, if we did not have free access to PCR as a research tool, the genome project really would be undoable. . . Rather than bragging about being ahead, we would be apologizing about being behind."

Whereas recombinant DNA technology resulted from a collaboration between university researchers whose immediate goal was to insert foreign genes into bacteria to study basic processes of gene replication, PCR was invented in a corporate environment with a specific application in mind—to improve diagnostics for human genetics. No one anticipated that it would so quickly become such a critical tool with such broad utility for basic research.

Molecular biology underwent considerable change during the decade between the development of recombinant DNA and PCR technologies (Blumenthal and others, 1986). The biotechnology industry emerged, laws governing intellectual property changed, there was a substantial increase in university-industry-government alliances, and university patenting in the life sciences increased tenfold (Blumenthal and others 1986, Henderson and others). There was virtually no controversy over whether such an important research tool should be patented

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