for National Geographic News
A new study shows that 20 percent of human genes have been patented in the United States, primarily by private firms and universities.
The study, which is reported this week in the journal Science, is the first time that a detailed map has been created to match patents to specific physical locations on the human genome.
Researchers can patent genes because they are potentially valuable research tools, useful in diagnostic tests or to discover and produce new drugs.
"It might come as a surprise to many people that in the U.S. patent system human DNA is treated like other natural chemical products," said Fiona Murray, a business and science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and a co-author of the study.
"An isolated DNA sequence can be patented in the same manner that a new medicine, purified from a plant, could be patented if an inventor identifies a [new] application."
Gene patents were central to the biotech boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The earliest gene patents were obtained around 1978 on the gene for human growth hormone.
The human genome project and the introduction of rapid sequencing techniques brought a deluge of new genetic information and many new patents. Yet there has been little comprehensive research about the extent of gene patenting.
The new study reveals that more than 4,000 genes, or 20 percent of the almost 24,000 human genes, have been claimed in U.S. patents.
Of the patented genes, about 63 percent are assigned to private firms and 28 percent are assigned to universities.
The top patent assignee is Incyte, a Palo Alto, California-based drug company whose patents cover 2,000 human genes.
"Gene patents give their owners property rights over gene sequencesfor example in a diagnostic test, as a test for the efficacy of a new drug, or in the production of therapeutic proteins," Murray said.
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