Who Patents Genes? The U.S. National Institutes of Health Has More than Twice as Many Patent Applications as the Runner-Up

Gene patents are one of the most controversial areas of intellectual property. “How can they patent genes?” people ask. “It’s like patenting blue eyes.” Even those not deep into the issue have likely heard of the cloud of litigation surrounding Myriad Genetics, a Salt Lake City company that sells a test for diagnosing breast cancer based on a woman’s genetic make-up. (Myriad Genetics has an informative backgrounder explaining what can and what cannot be patented.) The U.S. Supreme Court struck down one Myriad Genetics’ patent-protection in June 2013.

So, I was somewhat surprised to see a new report by the global law firm, Marks Clerk, which reported that the leading patent-filer for sequencing technology, personalized medicine and synthetic biology in the decade to 2013 was not a corporation, but the U.S. National Institutes of Health, with 360 applications of the total 1,752. Indeed, government research facilities, both in the U.S. and other countries, accounted for 617 applications — over one third of the total (and this does not include public universities, like the University of California.)



Comments (11)

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  1. Devon Herrick says:

    Public entities can patent all manner of genetic information on me. But a public company, like 23andMe cannot tell me what it possibly means and how it might affect my health in the future — all because the FDA doesn’t approved the test.

    • John R. Graham says:

      I find it unacceptable that the FDA is empowered to prevent a test that gives a person information, and does not do anything to the person like a pill or medical device does.

  2. Thomas says:

    I wonder what incentive the NIH has to patent this genetic information. Or more importantly, what will the government do with this information?

    • Dale says:

      They could use it to find causes and cures for many genetic disorders or diseases.

      Or, they could use the information to form super genes, and transform individuals genetic material into something superhuman. We could have an army of Supermen and women at our disposal.

      Or nothing could happen, as being with public organizations could just hinder any sort of innovation and stifle growth, just as government does.

      I’ll take the latter.

      • John R. Graham says:

        The most important law concerning patenting inventions funded by federal funds is the Bayh-Dole Act (1980). The NIH policy on patenting is at http://www.ott.nih.gov/patent-policy.

        It does not mention manufacturing an Army of Supermen and Superwomen. Maybe it was an oversight.

  3. Frank says:

    Interesting – the debate over patenting genes is difficult. It is very easy to blur the lines and get into questionably unethical territory.

    I’d recommend the book NEXT by Michael Crichton. It is a good fictional account of some of the perils of gene patenting.

    • Buddy says:

      “get into questionably unethical territory.”

      Especially when the government gets its hands on the gene patents. There is no telling what their incentives are to own genetic patents.

  4. Mr. Freedom says:

    What makes this extremely surprising is that the NIH is responsible for less than 10 percent of the drugs currently available on the market today. Some estimates have it to be as little as 4 percent.

    How inefficient does the NIH have to be to be responsible for so little innovation with that huge number of patents??

    • Steve says:

      That’s a good point Steve. So where does all the money end up going then? It seems like the return on taxpayer investment is atrocious.

      And “big” drug companies are called greedy? Why is that? After all, they are spending THEIR own money on R&D, not yours and mine, as the NIH does.

  5. Phill S says:

    There re plenty of new, important gene therapies continually coming to market, and I wonder how many of them result from such patents. I don’t know if such information is readily available.

  6. SPM says:

    We often hear how private businesses, especially those that patent their ideas, are greedy.

    So is the federal and state government also greedy?