Human genome: name your price

Posted by a staff writer

Weill Cornell Medical College researchers have issued a warning that, according to the patent system, the vast majority of humans on the planet don't 'own' their own genes, and in fact their biological make-up is being exploited for profit. Even seemingly innocent research into cow breeding can cover human genetic make-up.

As spotted by a Slashdot user, two researchers combing through patents on human DNA discovered that over 40,000 patents on DNA molecules have effectively declared the human genome for profit. A report in medical journal Genome Medicine said that humans may be losing their grip on "individual genomic liberty".

Looking at two kinds of patented DNA sequences, or long and short fragments, 41 percent of the human genome is covered by DNA patents that can cover entire genes. According to the research, if all of the short sequence patents were allowed in aggregate they could cover 100 percent of the human genome.

Lead author Dr Christopher E Mason and co-author Dr Jeffrey Rosenfeld warned that short sequences from patents cover "virtually the entire genome, even outside of genes". A Weill Cornell assistant professor asked: "How is it possible that my doctor cannot look at my DNA without being concerned about patent infringement?"

There will be a Supreme Court hearing about genomic patent rights next month that will debate the morality of a molecular diagnostic company claiming patents on key cancer genes, as well as on any small sequence of code within the BRCA1 gene. Cornell explained that at present, genes are able to be patented by researchers working in companies and institutions who discover genes that have potentially useful applications, like in testing for cancer risks. Because the patents can be held by companies or organisations, it is possible for the patent owner to charge doctors thousands of dollars for each diagnostic test.

The authors pointed out that in their studies, while engaged in research, it is common to come across a gene that's patented "almost every day". Their paper promises to examine how genes may have been impacted by held patents, and the extent of intellectual property on the genome. Gene patents can also relate between different species - for example, a company may have a patent for breeding cows that also covers a large percentage of human genes. They cited one company that owns 84 percent of all human genes because of a patent for cow breeding.

"There is a real controversy regarding gene ownership due to the overlap of many competing patent claims. It is unclear who really owns the rights to any gene," Dr Rosenfeld said. "Do we need to go through every gene to look at who made the first claim to that gene, even if only one small part? If we resort to this rule, then the first patents to be granted for any DNA will have a vast claim over portions of the human genome."

Lead author Dr Mason insisted he is pro-patent, but believes people "should not be able to patent a product of nature".

"I believe that individals have an innate right to their own genome," he said.