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December 16, 2011
Who Owns You? 20% of Human Genes Have Been Patented

Do people own their bodies? The answer should be a resounding "yes." However, through patents, many biotech companies are questioning whether a person really does own the intellectual property in the genetic composition of his/her body?

For the past thirty years, genes have been patentable. And we’re not just talking genetically modified corn -- your genes, pretty much as they exist in your body, can and have been patented. The US government reports over three million gene patent applications have been filed so far; over 40,000 patents are held on sections of the human genome, covering almost a quarter of our genes.

One study showed that 20% of human gene DNA sequences are patented and some genes are patented as many as 20 times.

The impact of gene patents on downstream research and innovation are unknown, in part because of a lack of empirical data on the extent and nature of gene patenting. Unsurprisingly, genes associated with health and disease are more patented than the genome at large. The intellectual property rights for some genes can even become highly fragmented between many owners.

"Our results reveal that nearly 20% of human genes are explicitly claimed as U.S. IP. This represents 4382 of the 23,688 of genes in the NCBI's gene database at the time of writing (see figure, right). These genes are claimed in 4270 patents within 3050 patent families," the authors stated.

A federal judge in New York ruled yesterday that patents on a set of human genes are invalid. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet handed down his decision in favor of the case brought by a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation. The lawsuit argued that patents owned by Myriad Genetics on two genes connected to breast and ovarian cancer both stunt genetic research and limit access to health care for women.

Human gene patenting works on the logic that if a patent applicant has “isolated and purified” genetic material, it constitutes an invention on their part -- even if the strand is identical to the DNA sequence found in nature. Proponents of gene patenting (i.e. generally, the companies or their patent lawyers) argue that patent protection is essential to retaining strong investment in genetic research, which speeds up progress in the field. It’s true that patents are important to the biomedical industry’s ability to attract capital, but the claim that a world without gene patents would stifle genetic research (or even make it unprofitable) seems overstated at best, and disingenuous at worst.



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