Monday, 30 April 2012

Patenting Genes

US Supreme Court
This recent article describes a little of the history of patenting genes and even the use of our own tissues for commercial purposes. This effectively prevents the use of a commonly-known gene sequence for a particular purpose by anyone but the patent holder, and prevents any other company designing tests for changes to that gene sequence - in other words only one company can own the test for genetic defects in a patented gene.

In the case of two genes that are known to predispose women to breast cancer (BRCA1 & 2) the patent has been under dispute on the grounds that it should not be possible to award such a patent (contending that BRCA1 & 2 are discoveries and not inventions) and is still in court awaiting an outcome. Roughly 20% of our genes are already subject to some sort of patent.

Earlier this year we outlined the coming genomics revolution that will allow us to all have our entire genome read. There are to be many benefits to all individuals knowing this information - the detection of potential threats to our health prior to any symptoms showing, the individual tailoring of drug treatment regimens to a person's genetic profile and more.

Knowing a person's genome means knowing the sequence of that persons DNA for ALL of their genes - there is a direct incompatibility between knowing a person's genome and having to run a patented test to find out the same information - the patented test would be redundant. We will not need the patented DNA tests in these cases, and costs may fall far enough to make the patented gene business uneconomic - so what is to be done?

In the immediate future we are faced with clinicians and researchers having to ignore patented gene sequences, whether or not that information is of benefit to their patient or research. They will have all of the sequence information in front of them, but will need to pay a separate company to use that information. This is an odd situation - instead of patenting providing a safeguard to inventors to allow them to continue their research (the original purpose of patenting), it may slow down research and medical treatment.

There have been several judgements released (see links above) that have gone against the use of patenting in this way, but companies with vested interests have appealed successfully. The BRCA case is set to decide the future of the use of genomic sequencing - do we sacrifice the profits of several companies in a common interest and usher in a new age of genetic information for each and every one of us? Or do we allow those companies to maximise their profits for the duration of the patents when their technology has blatantly been superceded?

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