Science magazine ran a story that researchers at MIT found that nearly 20 percent of the human genome, or 4,382 of the known 23, 688 human genes, have been patented, with over half owned by private companies and 28 percent assigned to universities. Around 63% of the patents are assigned to private firms, with one firm, Incyte Pharmaceuticals/Incyte Genomics, having intellectual property rights covering 2,000 human genes.

The study also shows that there are specific regions of the human genome known as “hot spots” of patent activity where some genes have up to 20 patents asserting rights to how those genes can be used. There are the genes thought likely to be involved in certain diseases.

Obviously, we don’t all have to start sending in royalty checks for use of our genes or anything but it does tend to surprise laypeople that isolated DNA sequence can be patented in the same manner that a new drug. Which begs the question: Is this a good thing or a bad thing to have all these patents?

Some argue that gene patents promote the disclosure and dissemination of information by making important uses of gene sequences publicly known. They also provide the promise of financial rewards necessary to secure financial backing, e.g., venture capital, to pay for the cost of doing research.

There is the risk that research will tend more toward commercially-exploitable products than towards those that are most in need. But this is the whole of the patent bargain – giving an incentive to do the research. While one could argue that research would be better spent on treatments for AIDS instead of for Viagra®, the profits propel the scientific machinery and can provide insights that can have a broader impact.

Others feel that gene patents can block future research and discoveries into these genes. It also means that researchers and research institutions need to tread carefully in their work to avoid infringing on someone’s patent. Although, I would argue that it’s no more true than the care that must be taken with any other type of patented composition, method or other intellectual property right that might be infringed in the course of research. And, look at it this way, in 20 years, all those inventions will be public domain. Sweet.

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