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House Bill Seeks to Prohibit 'All' New Human Genome Patenting

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — A bill introduced last week in the US House of Representatives seeks to eliminate the practice of gene patenting.  
The Genomic Research and Accessibility Act proposes to add wording to existing US patent legal code that would prohibit the patenting of human “genetic material.” It would not apply to patents issued before the act was passed.
Claiming that gene patenting is impeding research in important disease-related fields, the bill’s sponsors said it “would put an immediate end to any and all patenting of the human genome.”
The bill was introduced around the same time that a study published in Nature Biotechnology states that while patent offices in Europe and in Japan have “only granted between 3 percent and 5 percent of patent applications,” the US is granting “far more of these patents,” according to a statement from the University of Sussex, in the UK, whose scientists performed the study.
The Genomic Research and Accessibility Act was introduced by Xavier Becerra, a Democrat from California, and Dave Weldon, a Republican from Florida. In a statement, Weldon said gene patenting “is preventing critical research from advancing,” and said the bill is “a common sense measure to ensure that genes yet unpatented remain the province of science.”
Weldon and Bacerra also are against the principle of ownership of genetic material. In the statement, Bacerra said that “one-fifth” of the human genome “is owned by someone else.”
He was referring to research showing that around 20 percent of all known human genes have been patented. Those data, published by MIT researchers Fiona Murray and Kyle Jensen in Science in 2005, stated: “Policy-makers are hampered by a lack of empirical data on the extent of gene patenting.”
Using a bioinformatic model to compare patented nucleotide sequences to the human genome, Murray and Jensen found at the time that 4,382 of the 23,688 genes stored in the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s database have been patented. Of those patents, 63 percent are owned by private companies, the report states.
The researchers also found that “some genes have up to 20 patents asserting rights to various gene uses and manifestations,” including diagnostics, SNPs, and cell lines.
In addition, a study in this month’s Nature Biotechnology suggests that numerous factors outside the US, including legal prohibitions, have “raised the bar on the patentability of genes” in those regions, but that most of those inventions wound up winning US patent protection.   
In the study, titled “DNA Patenting: The End of an Era?” University of Sussex researchers write that “new guidelines at patent offices, legal developments, commercial sentiment and the growing volume of genetic information in the public domain,” have chilled the market for genetic patenting, particularly in Europe and in Japan.
Citing as evidence, the Sussex team wrote that “to date,” two-thirds of more than 15,000 inventions seeking patents on DNA sequences “have been rejected, withdrawn, or have yet to be processed.” But the research also indicates that many patents rejected in Europe and Japan may have been granted in the US.
Currently, the Genomic Research and Accessibility Act is awaiting review by the House Committee on the Judiciary.

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