Monday, March 25, 2013

Pervasive Sequence Patents Covering the Genome

A new paper in Genome Medicine argues that there's a huge body of patents on DNA sequences which, according to current legal definitions of a minimally patentable sequence (15 nucleotides long), are easily infringed upon:
Current patents for both short and long nucleotide sequences are extraordinarily non-specific and create an uncertain, problematic liability for genomic medicine, especially in regard to targeted re-sequencing and other sequence diagnostic assays.  
Basically, their argument is that patents on a particular sequence for one function restrict the ability of others to use the same DNA sequence for other purposes.  The problem seems very serious, given the bare minimum length of a patentable sequence.
An analysis of all current US patent claims and the human genome presented here shows that 15mer sequences from all human genes match at least one other gene. The average gene matches 364 other genes as 15mers; the breast-cancer-associated gene BRCA1 has 15mers matching at least 689 other genes. ... Furthermore, 15mer-length claims from bovine and other animal patents could also claim as much as 84% of the genes in the human genome.

To my knowledge, a patent on a molecule (be it a chemical or a nucleotide sequence) is on its use for a specific function.  So the patent for a DNA sequence to detect Gene X can also be patented (separately) to detect Gene Y, and it makes little sense to grant rights over Gene Y as a bonus for the inventor that originally worked on Gene X.  If any readers have specific examples of this, please email me.

This situation clearly provides a disincentive to work on things that might be considered to be infringing, and it's actually absurd, on a social level, because inventors usually don't have the resources to develop all possible uses of their original invention, and other people will fill in the gaps if given the chance.