One-Fifth of Human Genes Have Been Patented, Study Reveals

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"While this does not quite boil down to [the patent holders] owning our genes … these rights exclude us from using our genes for those purposes that are covered in the patent," she said.

Specific regions of the human genome are "hot spots" of patent activity. Some genes have up to 20 patents asserting rights to how those genes can be used.

"Basically those genes that people think are relevant in disease, such as Alzheimer's or cancer, are more likely to be patented than genes which are something of a mystery," Murray said.

Patent Maze

The effect of gene patenting on research and investment has been the subject of great debate.

Advocates argue that gene patents, like all patents, promote the disclosure and dissemination of ideas by making important uses of gene sequences publicly known.

Patents also provide important incentives to investors who would otherwise be reluctant to invest in ideas that could be copied by competitors.

But critics caution that patents that are very broad can obstruct future innovations by preventing researchers from looking for alternative uses for a patented gene.

"You can find dozens of ways to heat a room besides the Franklin stove, but there's only one gene to make human growth hormone," said Robert Cook-Deegan, director of Duke University's Center for Genome Ethics, Law, and Policy.

"If one institution owns all the rights, it may work well to introduce a new product, but it may also block other uses, including research," he said.

In cases where there are a lot of patents surrounding one area of research, the scientific costs of gene patents—financial and otherwise—can be extremely high.

"Our data raise a number of concerns about gene patents, particularly for heavily patented genes," Murray said. "We worry about the costs to society if scientists—academic and industry—have to walk through a complex maze of patents in order to make more progress in their research."

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