January 30, 2007

If you've got at least one kidney, a company called Biogen owns the patent for at least one of your genes. It's called the KIM gene, and the kidney uses it in the process of self-repair.

If you can taste things with your tongue, the University of California own the rights to three more of your genes, called TCP-1, 2 and 3; it's not clear in the patent application what the owners plan to do with their rights to these genes.

And if you have bones that have grown normally since birth, one of the genes that played a role in that normal growth belongs to a company called Sumimo Metal Industries. Sumimo is planning to develop a treatment for osteoporosis, and its patent on your so-far-nameless bone-building gene will help assure it gets a return on its investment if its research ever does result in a marketable drug.

The first U.S. patent granting rights to a specific gene or gene sequence hit the books in 1980. That year, about a dozen "life patents" -- patent applications claiming ownership to a naturally occurring building block of human life -- were filed. In 2000, 34,000 new patents listing at least one gene or sequence, and usually more than one, were filed each month. By the end of 2000, 500,000 naturally occurring genes or DNA sequences were patented or patent-pending. The owners of these patents are typically corporations, academic institutions or charitable research groups, although the U.S. Department of Health is also a major player in the gene-patenting game, having applied for patents covering more than 3,000 pieces of human life.

If you've read How Patents Work, you may be scratching your head right about now, and on so many levels. First, at its most basic, the patent system is intended to grant certain control and rights over an invention or discovery in the hopes of encouraging innovation and research that will benefit mankind. But certainly no one can claim to have invented a gene or gene sequence. So the patent rights to pieces of the human body must lie in the area of discovery. But someone discovered trees once, right? Can a corporation patent trees?

(Actually, yes, it can. All sorts of plant life has been patented, causing serious problems in developing countries that need that plant life to survive.)

Many in the field of genetics research -- even those who oppose a large majority of the life patents that have been applied for and granted -- believe there is a case to be made for a legitimate patent on a gene or gene sequence that is based on more than the discovery of a gene or gene sequence and what it might do, but is instead based on discovery of the actual purpose of the gene and a plan that details how the patent holder intends to use that gene. This type of patent is considered in many scientific and even ethics circles to be defensible. If a research group discovers, say, the gene that causes obesity and how it works, and it intends to go forward in developing an obesity treatment based on that discovery, that group deserves to own the rights to the fruits of its discovery. Many believe that if a pharmaceutical company ultimately markets a drug that was developed based on that group's research, that group deserves to get a cut of the profits.

But there's a hitch in the process, and it's not just the strangeness of someone patenting his or her discovery of a naturally occurring part or process of the human body. That's one for the philosophers and the politicians. Looking at the example of the un-named bone-growth gene patented by Sumimo, a more practical problem comes to light.

Sumimo's patent claims that the gene it discovered may lead to an effective treatment for osteoporosis. In related news, two other companies own two other patents for two other genes that are also known to aid in bone growth. Both of these other companies have laid claim to the hope for an end to osteoporosis. So we've got three companies, each owning the rights to a different gene that might hold part of the answer to certain bone diseases. As the Guardian asks in its article "Patenting life," what if the answer is actually in some combination of all three genes? What pharmaceutical company is going to develop a treatment whose success means having to pay out its profits as royalties to a slew of patent holders?

So the biggest problem in the life-patent business seems to be the race to patent genes and sequences that the would-be patent holders don't fully understand -- they simply know they're there, in human DNA, doing someone that seems to be related to something else. And they're securing their ownership position should their "discovery" turn into something marketable. According to many who question the ethics of life patents, this type of patenting can only hinder research opportunities and incentives to develop cures. As quoted in the New York Times' "Someone (Other Than You) May Own Your Genes," Human Genome Project researcher Tim Hubbard summed up the position in 2001 at a genetics conference: "If you have a patent on a mousetrap, rivals can still make a better mousetrap ... If someone patents a gene, they have a real monopoly."

According to the UK's Gene Watch, there are about two dozen patents covering gene processes related to HIV, and countless others covering every major organ. There are also patents granting ownership over genes and gene sequences in teeth, sperm, blood, ears, the tongue and the immune system. As of 2007, 20 percent of the genes that make up human DNA are patented.

For more information on life patents and related topics, check out the following links:

Sources

  • Caruso, Denise. "Someone (Other Than You) May Own Your Genes." The New York Times. Jan. 28, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/business/yourmoney/ 28reframe.html?pagewanted=1&th&emc=th
  • Meek, James. "The race to buy life." Guardian Unlimited. Nov. 15, 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/genes/article/0,,397827,00.html
  • "Patenting life." Guardian Unlimited. Nov. 15, 2000. http://www.guardian.co.uk/genes/article/0,2763,397403,00.html
  • Stokes, Giles. "Patent applications of genetic sequences on the up." Thomson Scientific. April 2000. http://scientific.thomson.com/free/ipmatters/patlife/8205003/ //]]]]> ]]>