The effects of business practices, licensing, and intellectual property on development and dissemination of the polymerase chain reaction: Case study

Joe Fore, Ilse R. Wiechers, Robert Cook-Deegan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Introduction: Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was a seminal genomic technology discovered, developed, and patented in an industry setting. Since the first of its core patents expired in March, 2005, we are in a position to view the entire lifespan of the patent, examining how the intellectual property rights have impacted its use in the biomedical community. Given its essential role in the world of molecular biology and its commercial success, the technology can serve as a case study for evaluating the effects of patenting biological research tools on biomedical research. Case description: Following its discovery, the technique was subjected to two years of in-house development, during which issues of inventorship and publishing/patenting strategies caused friction between members of the development team. Some have feared that this delay impeded subsequent research and may have been due to trade secrecy or the desire for obtaining lucrative intellectual property rights. However, our analysis of the history indicates that the main reasons for the delay were benign and were primarily due to difficulties in perfecting the PCR technique. Following this initial development period, the technology was made widely available, but was subject to strict licensing terms and patent protection, leading to an extensive litigation history. Discussion and evaluation: PCR has earned approximately $2 billion in royalties for the various rights-holders while also becoming an essential research tool. However, using citation trend analysis, we are able to see that PCR's patented status did not preclude it from being adopted in a similar manner as other non-patented genomic research tools (specifically, pBR322 cloning vector and Maxam-Gilbert sequencing). Conclusion: Despite the heavy patent protection and rigid licensing schemes, PCR seems to have disseminated so widely because of the practices of the corporate entities which have controlled these patents, namely through the use of business partnerships and broad corporate licensing, adaptive licensing strategies, and a "rational forbearance" from suing researchers for patent infringement. While far from definitive, our analysis seems to suggest that, at least in the case of PCR, patenting of genomic research tools need not impede their dissemination, if the technology is made available through appropriate business practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalJournal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 3 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Computer Science Applications
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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