By Caity Ross
Edited by Abby Lauer
In 2004, Fiona Murray and Kyle Jensen published a prominent article in the journal Science. They reported that the USPTO had issued 4,270 human gene patents for 4,382 distinct human genes. Approximately one-fifth of known human genes were claimed in a U.S. patent. Beyond human genes, there are approximately 20,000 patents covering a wide range of naturally occurring DNA sequences. Gene patents include “[n]ine patents [that] have been applied for on the genes which determine your eyeball, 40 on those for your heart, and no fewer than 152 on a single grain of rice.”
However, scholars and practitioners often question the scope and validity of gene patents on the grounds that genes are so essential to basic research. They claim that it is unethical to grant a private monopoly on genes, which should not be patentable subject matter or controllable by individuals. The USPTO has declined to rule on this issue, treating gene patenting as matter of statutory interpretation. Therefore, attempts to end gene patents generally aim to overturn court precedent or to advocate new legislation.
A recent decision in the ACLU-supported case Association for Molecular Pathology, et al. v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, et al. will help determine the future of gene patents in the United States. On March 29, 2010, United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet granted a summary judgment motion that invalidated patents on two genes. If upheld, this decision essentially eliminates patents covering all naturally occurring genes. For a summation of the opinion, see the Digest’s coverage. (more…)