New Online Database Sheds Light On Gene Patenting Process
December 8, 2013

New Database Sheds Light On Gene Patenting Process

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Researchers from Cambria, a non-profit biotech research organization, and the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), have developed a new online database revealing which organizations have applied for patents related to genes and proteins in living organisms.

The open-sourced PatSeq registry, which is the subject of a paper published in last week’s edition of Nature Biotechnology, currently holds over 120 million DNA sequences and 10 million protein sequences extracted from global patents documents.

The free service, which was unveiled last week, allows anyone to explore who has sought patents for this type of genetic information, the institutions behind the Internet resource said in a statement Friday. It also includes a graphical took to visualize the scope of patents overlaying the human genome and a search tool allowing people with gene or protein sequences to find matches contained in the PatSeq database.

“Apparently, many patent offices have no way of tracking genetic sequences disclosed in patents and currently do not provide them in machine-searchable format,” explained principal author Professor Osmat Jefferson of the QUT Science and Engineering Faculty. “This likely means patents are being granted for genes that are not 'newly discovered' at all, because the patent offices have no way of really knowing.

“Gene patenting is an area where almost everyone has an opinion - passions run high but until now the evidence has been lacking,” she added. “What is happening? Who's doing the patenting? Why are they doing it? How much are they doing it? What rights are being granted? And how much is our society benefiting from these biological patent teachings? No one really knows because the whole system is opaque.”

According to Jefferson, the scrutiny surrounding genes and protein patenting dates back to June, when the US Supreme Court ruled naturally occurring genetic material could not be patented. That stemmed from a 2009 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation involving patent rights for a pair of genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Those patents were held by Myriad Genetics, and were among the approximately 4,000 human genes patented to companies, universities and institutions that discovered and/or decoded them. However, the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation argued since DNA is a natural product, it could not be patented under the US Patent Act. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with them, declaring biotech companies “should not have exclusive control over genetic information found inside the human body,” the Associated Press (AP) reported.

“A patent is a government grant of a limited exclusive right to try to stop others' use of an invention,”  Jefferson said. “When that invention is a gene or protein sequence present in a living organism, it raises serious social questions that deserve serious consideration, especially when that sequence is used for an important genetic test or diagnostic.”

With the new database, “all findings can be embedded and shared with anyone, anywhere at no cost, allowing researchers, policy makers and concerned citizens to explore the evidence underlying this practice,” she added. “The public – and indeed enterprise and policy makers – need to know the answers if we're to have a transparent, fair and economically productive society.”