As top court invalidates some gene patents, biotech has moved on

Thu Jun 13, 2013 6:59pm EDT
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By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK, June 13 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court decision on Thursday to uphold patent protections for genetic material that has been changed in the laboratory but invalidate patents for purely natural DNA may seem like a partial setback for the biotech industry, but experts said it isn't: the industry has already moved on.

"There are literally tens of thousands of patents claiming DNA that we would not consider to be a product of nature," and which therefore are fine according to Thursday's decision, said Gregory Graff, a professor at Colorado State University who led an analysis of gene patents published last month in Nature Biotechnology.

One common form of DNA that has been manipulated in the lab and so is eligible for patenting, is called cDNA (the "c" stands for "complementary"). It is essentially an edited form of a gene: extraneous stretches of DNA have been excised.

It was cDNA that launched the biotechnology revolution in the 1980s and that has since fuelled the rise of multibillion-dollar businesses in gene-based medicine and agriculture, from Pfizer Inc to Monsanto.

Pharmaceutical companies use cDNA to produce proteins such as insulin and human growth hormone.

Although those original patents are now so old they have expired or are about to, the Court's decision leaves the door open to patenting other synthetic genes to make new medicines, said Robert Field, a professor of law at Drexel University.


The legal protections that support today's DNA-based industries have also moved well beyond the simplest gene patents that referred only to the chemical sequence of a gene (a combination of the letters A, T, C and G). The shift has come largely since the Human Genome Project unveiled the entire 3-billion-letters-long human DNA sequence in 2003 and put it in the public domain.   Continued...