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BROADER PATENT PROTECTION would propel U.S. technology, say backers of a bill sponsored by Representative William Hughes (D-N.J.) that is headed toward a House vote. Its main aim is to tighten patent safeguards for biotechnology. Because many biotech drugs, such as insulin, exist in nature, they are hard to patent. The Hughes bill would, among other things, grant patents to the actual drugmaking process, which consists of inserting patented dna into "host" cells that then churn out the desired drug.

IN REALITY, the bill is so broad it could cause a surge of litigation, especially in the much larger chemical industry. That's because companies with patents on chemical materials (natural products, too) could get undeserved patents on the processes for using them. One extreme possibility: A maker of acid that goes into chemicals for plastic could sue an unsuspecting auto-parts company for patent infringement. The grounds? The plastic in the company's dashboards was made with an acid that allegedly violates the acid maker's patent. This is less of a problem for biotech outfits, which commonly control all stages of production. That's a good reason for limiting the bill to biotech.EDITED BY LARRY LIGHT AND JULIE TILSNER By Peter Coy

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