Depending on how patent claims are interpreted, much of the human genome could be covered by them, say the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's Jeffrey Rosenfeld and Christopher Mason from Cornell University in Genome Medicine.
Rosenfeld and Mason note that some gene patent claims, and rulings regarding those claims, focus on sequences as short as 15 nucleotides in length. Using the Consensus Coding Sequences database, they determined that 15-mer stretches from every gene in the human genome correspond to at least one other gene — they particularly note that 15-mers from the BRCA1 gene match 689 other genes. "These results demonstrated that short patent sequences are extremely non-specific and that a 15-mer patent claim from one gene will always 'cross-match' and patent a portion of another gene as well," Rosenfeld and Mason write.
They matched known genes to full-length genes included in patent filings, finding that about 41 percent of the human genome is under patent claims. When they examined 15-mer lengths of patented genes, the whole of the human genome appeared to be covered. A gene patented for improving bovine traits, they add, also corresponds to a number of human genes.
"If patent claims that use these 15-mer or other short k-mer sizes are enforced, it could potentially create a situation where a piece of every gene in the human genome is patented by a phalanx of competing patents, with potentially harmful consequences for genetic testing laboratories and research groups performing targeted sequencing on any gene, in virtually all species," they argue.