Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gene Patents

Coward's recent post about prestin got me thinking about gene patents and how they work. While I couldn't find a decent overview of Canadian guidelines at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, I did come across 2 other good resources. The first is a summary of British gene patent information and the other is an excellent FAQ from the Human Genome Project. The rules are pretty similar. Basically, to patent a gene:

1) it must be a novel sequence
2) you must specify the gene product
3) you must specify the product function

The last two points are key, as they prevent the massive patenting of sequences and sitting on the rights until somebody else comes up with a practical application (see: submarine patents).

Interestingly, ESTs and SNPs can also be patented which means there is the potential for multiple patents on the same sequence. Whole organisms can also be patented, provided they are not naturally occurring (GM corn, for example), as can naturally occurring substances, as long as a novel use can be specified.

Currently an estimated 20% of human genes have been patented, but fortunately the government reserves the right to override patents in cases where it is deemed vital for the public good and the patent holder is being overly restrictive. For example, the American Medical Association has asked for a ban on patents for medical and surgical procedures, or, closer to home, the Ontario government ignored a US patent on a cancer screen and offered the test to the public. Similarly, the BC government complied and stopped, but has since resumed offering the test.


Ben said...

Perhaps I'm naive, but I still cannot believe the ability to patent human genes even exists in the first place. Of course, some would make the argument that it's a natural progression given the genetic methodologies in use today, but still...isn't simply reporting a gene sequence or registering a novel SNP enough? Apparently not. It's only a matter of time before we start naming genes and proteins after ourselves (if we haven't already).

Bayman said...

I agree. I've always thought that patenting genes was kind of weird. Imagine chemists racing to patent every element on the periodic table as they were discovered...then you could go for every single possible molecule ... Anyway, I think the most damaging result is that the biotech patent scene is currently an uninterpretable mess. There are too many patents being put out there, most of them totally useless and rendundant. Patenting genes is a big departure from the very specific types of inventions that have been patentable in the past. Maybe the only reason people get away with ludicrous gene patents it is the lack of public awareness as to exactly what genes are and aren't. How many supreme court judges out there know what DNA is?

rob said...

This is a topic for the next bayblab pubcast. Listen to Bayman RAGE about patenting AGCs and T's, while I patent deoxyribose polymers and RULE THE WORLD.