Today the public is debating whether or not patents should be awarded for human genes.

The Patent Process

The United States Commerce Department issues patents on inventions. By proving that he or she is the first to invent something, an inventor can get exclusive rights to develop and sell products based on the invention for 20 years.

The patent office must determine that an invention is practically useful, new, clever, and creative in design, and useful to a skilled technician for the practical purpose intended.

Gene Patents

The patent office has ruled that whole genes as they occur in nature on chromosomes are not patentable. If a person isolates a gene, however, or modifies the gene, it becomes a candidate for a patent. Most patent applications are for gene fragments that contain one or more changed base pairs and may represent gene sequences that lead to disease or new drugs.

Arguments Against Gene Patents

One critic of human gene patents, Dr. Jonathan King, points out that the human genome mapping project came from 50 years of public investment and therefore shouldn't be patentable by private companies. Others object to patenting any part of nature. Still others argue that patenting gene fragment base-pair sequences rewards the easy part. The cost of identifying a gene is only a small fraction of the total cost of developing useful applications from genetic information. It is argued that gene patents penalize anyone (such as pharmaceutical companies) who would invest in the research for drugs or therapies derived from the gene sequence. Most critics agree that gene patenting could slow the study of the human genome.

Arguments in Favor of Gene Patents

Some companies say patents are necessary because of high research and development costs. Companies fear they will waste millions of dollars on duplicated efforts because only patented information is made public. Unpatented information is kept secret. They point out that owning a patent draws investors, which helps fund research. The public nature of a patent reduces secrecy and allows researchers to share techniques.

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