Over 4000 human genes patented

National Geographic News has a story about the ubiquity of gene patenting, following on an analysis in Science (subscription required) by Kyle Jensen and Fiona Murray.

Here is the key graf from the Science study:

Our results reveal that nearly 20% of human genes are explicitly claimed as U.S. IP. This represents 4382 of the 23,688 of genes in the NCBI's gene database at the time of writing (see figure, right). These genes are claimed in 4270 patents within 3050 patent families (28). Although this number is low compared with prior reports, a distinction should be made between sequences that are explicitly claimed and those that are merely disclosed, which outnumber claimed sequences roughly 10:1. The 4270 patents are owned by 1156 different assignees (with no adjustments for mergers and acquisition activity, subsidiaries, or spelling variations). Roughly 63% are assigned to private firms (see figure, above). Of the top ten gene patent assignees, nine are U.S.-based, including the University of California, Isis Pharmaceuticals, the former SmithKline Beecham, and Human Genome Sciences. The top patent assignee is Incyte Pharmaceuticals/Incyte Genomics, whose IP rights cover 2000 human genes, mainly for use as probes on DNA microarrays.

Gene patents are not unequivocally a problem -- they have benefits and costs. But there is at least one sense in which the patent grab may not be such a good idea. From the NG article:

"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 five or ten years when somebody tries to market a "tricorder"-like device that can spontaneously probe a person's genome for any known genetic variant, what happens when all these companies and universities try to enforce their DNA microarray patents on each variant?

References:

Jensen K, Murray F. 2005. Intellectual property landscape of the human genome. Science 310:239-240. Full text (subscription)