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By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

Seattle, WA (2/17/97) Leading geneticists expressed shock and dismay as word spread of the US Patent and Trademark Office announcement that it would allow patents on expressed sequence tags (ESTs), short sequences of human DNA that have proven useful in genome mapping .

"I am not completely surprised by this decision, because the patent office has done stupid things before, but I am dismayed. The idea that you can gain control of a gene by doing a little bit of sequencing is absolutely appalling." said Dr. Leroy Hood of the University of Washington, Seattle.

"The field of biology has now become a kind of informational science. I would argue that you should patent biological information and the assets that derive from that, rather than the physical structures of the genes and proteins. I think it is very, very unfortunate that this decision has been made, because it means in theory that anyone who wants to buy DNA sequencers and grind away could have enormous control over a lot of information," said Dr. Hood.

The announcement was made by acting deputy commissioner of patents and trademarks, Lawrence Goffney. He said that that the office has decided to allow claims to ESTs based on their utility as probes. He cited precedents regarding the patentability of works that are useful only as tools, noting: "We give patents for screwdriver blades with a new slope every day." As an aside, he noted that he personally fought the decision to allow patents on ESTs.

ESTs are DNA sequences of up to a few hundred base pairs in length that can be used to identify and detect the expression of specific genes. As long ago as 1991, the American Society of Human Genetics, a society of over 4500 American and Canadian physicians, scientists and genetic counsellors, has formally opposed the patenting of ESTs.

In opposing the concept of EST patents, the ASHG raises two questions, "can they be patented?" and "should they be patented?" (Science, 254 184-186, 1991; Nature 353 485-486, 1991). The ASHG position has been that the issuing of patents for ESTs is likely to do far more harm than good. The primary concern is that the Human Genome Project would suffer by inhibiting collaboration among scientists. Another concern is that research would slow as patent claims are argued.

"The patent system as created by Thomas Jefferson never could have envisioned what is taking place at the end of the 20th century, when we are dealing with genes and bits of genes. The technology of large scale DNA sequencing is getting far ahead of the patent system. We haven't heard the last of this. With the great number of companies that have invested considerable resources in setting up large scale DNA sequencing facilities and generating ESTs, it should make for some interesting politcal theater as the parties battle out who really has claim on a particular gene or sequence," said Claire Fraser, Institute for Genomic Research.

Related information on the Internet

ASHG Policy Statement on EST Patenting

New Mapping Techniques

Human Genome Program

AE: High Speed Gene Mapping

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