13 October, 2005

speaking of maps

Sometimes when you make a map, you find something unexpected (subscription required):
U.S. Patents Claim Almost 20% Of Human Genes, Study Finds
October 14, 2005

Close to 20% of human genes are claimed by U.S. patents, say researchers who have produced the first comprehensive map of the patent landscape for the genome.

The work will pave the way for a more informed debate over the consequences of patenting genetic sequences, experts say. The topic of gene ownership has been controversial: Proponents argue that gene patenting promotes development of drugs and diagnostic tests because companies have an incentive to carry the costs, but critics contend the practice stifles innovation at the basic research level.

But until now, despite avid discussion and several high-profile legal fights over the ownership of genes, nobody really knew how many genes were claimed in patents or how widespread the practice was. "The real novelty of the work is that it's a whole-genome approach," said Kyle Jensen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student and co-author of the study.

In the report, to be published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, Mr. Jensen and MIT's Sloan School of Management Professor Fiona Murray compared all of the gene sequences claimed in U.S. patents from 1990 until today with the sequences stored in the government's public database of human genes.

The team found that of the 23,688 genes in the U.S. government's public database, 4,382 were claimed as intellectual property. This is likely an underestimate because the analysis didn't look at patents for protein sequences, said Ms. Murray. "It could be up to double that," she said.

The more than 4,200 patents were owned by 1,156 institutions or inventors. About 63% were assigned to private companies, with Incyte Pharmaceuticals, a unit of Delaware's Incyte Corp., having the highest number of patents assigned, covering more than 2,000 human genes.

The researchers also found that heavily patented genes tended to be those with high relevance to human health and disease. Gene patenting has been the subject of legal battles in Europe, where countries have challenged Utah-based Myriad Genetics Inc.'s patent claims on breast-cancer gene BRCA1. Myriad has developed a diagnostic test that uses the gene, and the countries have resisted its use in Europe because of the patent issue. BRCA1 is one of the most-often-patented genes, with 14 patents issuing claims to it, according to the MIT study.

Scott Stern, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Illinois who studies how scientific ideas get to the marketplace, said the MIT work "illustrates in a very dramatic fashion the degree to which intellectual-property rights over the human genome are inextricably linked with those areas of high medical and scientific interest."

Mr. Stern, who has worked with Ms. Murray in the past but wasn't involved in her current research, said that the debate over the patenting of human genes "is going to be with us for a long time" and that the MIT work lays the groundwork needed to make informed policy decisions. The National Academy of Sciences, which advises the U.S. government on science issues, is looking at the issue of gene ownership and its effects on research.

Write to Sylvia Pagán Westphal at sylvia.westphal@wsj.com

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