Patenting human genes thwarts research, scientists say

Jun 04, 2009 By Robert S. Boyd

Rapid advances in biology and genetics are raising fresh concerns about the spreading practice of patenting human genes.

The U.S. and Trademark Office has granted patents to at least 4,382 human genes, including genes related to Alzheimer's, asthma, cancer, muscular dystrophy and other serious diseases.

"Twenty percent of the are currently patented," said Christopher Hansen, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit last month challenging six patents on two genes that are connected to tests for breast and .

A gene patent gives its owner the exclusive right, for up to 20 years, to control its use for medical research, diagnosis or treatment.

"A gene patent holder has the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene," the ACLU lawsuit protests. "As a result, scientific research and genetic testing has been delayed, limited or even shut down due to concerns about gene patents."

Patent holders reply that they have a constitutionally guaranteed right to protect their inventions in order to pay the heavy costs of genetic research and development.

Though gene patents are lawful, many scientists, health professionals and patients' organizations object that the patents are stifling research and interfering with patient care.

"Patents are meant to protect inventions, not things that exist in nature like genes in the human body," Hansen said.

"Questionable patents are too easily obtained and are too difficult to challenge," the Senate Committee on the Judiciary declared last month. "An industry has developed in which firms use patents not as a basis for producing and selling goods but, instead, primarily for obtaining license fees."

The patent war is being waged on several fronts.

Congress is weighing legislation that would make it easier to challenge patents. The National Institutes of Health released a 136-page draft report on the problem this spring. The National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Trade Commission have held multiple hearings.

The ACLU suit was filed in federal district court in Manhattan on behalf of the American College of Medical Genetics, the College of American Pathologists, other research organizations and individual patients. The defendants are Myriad Genetics, a pharmaceutical firm in Salt Lake City, and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which sponsored the research.

The patents give Myriad Genetics the exclusive right to test women for mutations in two genes, known as BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, which may indicate a genetic susceptibility to breast or ovarian cancer. A woman who tests positive might decide to have her breasts or ovaries removed.

"The effect of the patents has been to stifle clinical practice and research on the genetic predisposition to breast and/or ovarian cancer," the ACLU said. "The public, and in particular women, have suffered unnecessarily as a result."

In response to news media queries, Myriad Genetics said it thought that its patents were valid and that it intended to defend them vigorously.

The House of Representatives and the Senate are considering bills that would, among other things, make it easier to challenge existing patents. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved its bill May 12. The House Committee on the Judiciary has held hearings but hasn't yet approved its version. If it passes, the bill would be the first major change in patent law in more than 50 years.

Patents have a venerable history. The U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) provided for a system of patents in order to encourage innovation and industrial progress. The goal was to reward inventors for their discoveries and prevent competitors from using their work without paying for licenses.

However, no patents on living things were granted until 1980, when the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4, approved a patent on a microbe that had been modified to dissolve oil spills.

The court's decision opened the floodgates. More than 3 million gene-related patent applications have since been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Multiple patents have been issued on different parts of a single gene, creating a "traffic jam" blocking investigators from working with that gene.

Fiona Murray, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, reported a "significant decrease in the rate of follow-on research after patents on gene sequences have been filed and granted."

The Patent Office estimated that about 52,800 patents have been granted related to genes, fragments of genes, genetic processes and bits of DNA as small as a single letter change in the genetic code.

___

ON THE WEB

More on gene patents: www.ornl.gov/hgmis/elsi/patents.html

A National Institutes of Health view of gene patents: oba.od.nih.gov/oba/SACGHS/SACG… t%203%209%202009.pdf

___

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at www.mcclatchydc.com

Explore further: Leading medical experts call for an end to UK postcode lottery for liver disease treatment and detection

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

ACLU -- Myriad Genetics lawsuit will become landmark case

May 14, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union action in filing a lawsuit yesterday against Myriad Genetics is going to lead to one of the most important legal battles in the history of biotechnology, asserts Genetic Engineering & Bi ...

U.S. rejects three stem cell patents

Apr 04, 2007

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued a preliminary rejection of three stem cell patents held by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

German inventors more active in 2004

Aug 01, 2005

The number of inventions in Germany significantly increased last year, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported Monday.

Feast for open source as IBM opens patent pantry

Jan 11, 2005

IBM has pledged open access to key innovations covered by 500 IBM software patents to people and groups working on open source software. The pledge applies to any individual, community, or company working on or using soft ...

EU revises position on software patents

Jun 05, 2006

Is software patentable in Europe? Following questioning from a member of the European parliament, the European Commission recently released a statement containing strong implications that computer programs aren't patentable, ...

Recommended for you

Doctor behind 'free radical' aging theory dies

Nov 25, 2014

Dr. Denham Harman, a renowned scientist who developed the most widely accepted theory on aging that's now used to study cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, has died in Nebraska at age 98.

Mexican boy who had massive tumor recovering

Nov 25, 2014

An 11-year-old Mexican boy who had pieces of a massive tumor removed and who drew international attention after U.S. officials helped him get treatment in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico is still recovering after ...

New medical device to make the mines safer

Nov 21, 2014

Dehydration can be a serious health issue for Australia's mining industry, but a new product to be developed with input from Flinders University's Medical Device Partnering Program (MDPP) is set to more effectively ...

US family gets $6.75 million in Botox case

Nov 20, 2014

A New York couple who said Botox treatment of their son's cerebral palsy left him with life-threatening complications and sued its manufacturer won a $6.75 million verdict from a federal jury on Thursday.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Bob_B
not rated yet Jun 04, 2009
The Patent Office = Idiocy
Nemo
5 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2009
If I possess one of the genes that were patented doesn't it stand that I or one of my ancestors invented it first? Genes are information and shouldn't be patentable. Create a specific test on that gene via some process that might be patentable and I say go or it, but leave the gene alone. It isn't yours to patent.
wawadave
not rated yet Jun 05, 2009
Alzheimer's, asthma, cancer, muscular dystrophy

if you get these then sue the patent holder.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.