Medical research is being undermined by flaws in the patent laws which prevent scientists having access to the data they need, according to researchers from the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. They say that more than 1,000 gene sequences have already been patented.
The researchers investigated which genes have been patented and on what grounds the patent was awarded. They found that there are now 17 genome-research companies worldwide, which are in a position to patent many of the 100,000 genes in our bodies.
The researchers' main criticism is that patents are often too broad. Although companies must demonstrate utility in order to receive a patent, they are being granted them for full DNA sequences and sometimes any possible mutations of that sequence that have not yet been discovered, but might lead to better products.
Julian Burke, reader in biochemistry at Sussex and a participant in the study, told a meeting held by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of national science week that claiming the rights to all variants on a gene sequence "inhibits anyone else who might have a good idea. It inhibits invention and production of improved products".
Medical research is also undermined because companies are withholding data about genes for which they do not yet have patents, he said. "There are commercial organisations that have an awful lot of gene sequence data and they are keeping it to themselves. This information would be incredibly useful worldwide for medical research."
Human Genome Sciences, a genome research company in the United States, has about 35,000 genes in its database and has filed for patents for 70 of them. It allows academic researchers to use a special type of DNA sequence to discover other new genes - but only if they cede all patent rights of any genes they discover to HGS and its partner, SmithKline Beecham.
Dr Burke said: "Our view is that genes definitely should be patented. In many instances a lot of work has gone into isolating these sequences. But we are alarmed at the way in which some genes have been patented."