Research May Be Affected By Patent Applications
Local experts said it remains to be seen how the recent news by a private firm that it deciphered 90 percent of the human genetic code will affect local research in San Diego.
The news that Celera Genomics of Rockville, Md., had sequenced 90 percent of the human genome , the collection of human raw material , or 97 percent of all the human genes, hasn’t made local experts nervous.
At least not for now.
That’s because Celera executives reiterated they’ll release some of their information to publicly funded researchers in research institutions, such as scientists at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and the Scripps Research Institute, for free.
So far they shared the information only with their clients, many of which are big pharmaceutical firms.
Still, Celera reported it intends to file patent applications on newly discovered genes and continues to file these applications on medically relevant gene discoveries.
They’ve also continued to file for thousands of provisional patent applications, not for a few hundred genes as previously reported, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The publicly funded Human Genome Project, a global effort to map some 100,000 human genes, in turn, is posting its findings for free on its Web sites.
Potential Patent Problem
Dr. Joel Buxbaum, a professor in the department of molecular and experimental medicine at the Scripps Research Institute who is also on the advisory council of the National Human Genome Research Institute, foresees some problems with the idea of patenting information.
But he said it all depends on the breadth of the patents and how Celera enforces its patent rights.
For instance, he said, a gene that is patented for wider use is more likely to be challenged by a private firm in court than a patent for a particular application.
Local biotechnology firms that are already working on a particular gene, for instance, may have to dig deep into their pockets to challenge a Celera patent.
But then again, said Buxbaum, some biotechnology firms may not want to pursue the study of a gene that is already patented.
Dr. Ivor Royston, president and chief executive of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, agreed if Celera got a patent on an “important gene” it may make it more difficult for local biotechnology firms to pursue its application. And there’s the question of how companies working on a patented gene would be affected if they did discover a drug.
Most of these questions won’t be answered any time soon.
But, Joseph Panetta, president and chief executive of Biocom, San Diego’s association for the life-sciences industry, says the fact that Celera may charge biotechnology firms a fee to access a patented gene won’t stifle their research.
To the contrary, it’ll motivate more research, he said. Local biotech firms that may be affected include those working in human genomics, gene sequencing and functional genomics.
But Panetta added, there are still plenty of opportunities for patenting in terms of how genes function, their modification and how to correct the sequence of genes to address a genetically inherited disease.
Researchers have long touted the importance of the Genome Project as opening up a new era of medicine that would allow pharmaceutical companies to develop customized drugs targeting specific diseases.
But the vision is far from its realization.
The sequencing of genes is a first big step, but much work lies ahead in analyzing the sequences, and spelling out DNA patterns, researchers said.
Indeed, said Buxbaum, “The first 90 percent of the genome are the easiest to sequence, to put them in order is the hard part.”
Celera and the Genome Project are using very different approaches in unraveling information, Buxbaum said.
Celera uses the “shotgun” technique, which focuses on sequencing the entire genome at once, said J. Craig Venter, president and chief scientific officer at Celera.
By contrast, the Genome Project uses a more organized approach by first mapping the genome, and then doing the sequencing of genes, Buxbaum explained.
Since the maps are available in the public domain, they can be used by Celera.
Buxbaum said gene sequences obtained in the Genome Project are placed on its Web sites within 24 hours after verification.
Celera puts sequences on its Web sites three months after discovery, leaving plenty of time to file for patents, he added.
Buxbaum, however, believes the Genome Project is not far behind Celera and its working draft of the entire genome, the three-billion-letter blueprint that makes each human unique, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2000.