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Tuesday, October 26, 1999 Published at 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK


6,000 human gene patents sought

The move has outraged an international team of scientists

By Corinne Podger of BBC Science

A biotechology firm in the United States is beginning to patent parts of the human genome - the code containing the genetic information that makes up human beings.

Celera Genomics says it will give companies and universities access to the blueprint on payment of a subscription fee.

But the move has outraged an international team of scientists who want to make the human genome available free of charge on the Internet.

Understanding disease

The human genome is the "blueprint" of all the genes that make up human beings. Decoding these genes - in a process known as sequencing - will help doctors understand the genetic basis of dozens of human diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

A publicly-funded international effort, known as the Human Genome Project, is working to decode the genome. It promises to freely publish the information it discovers about every gene on the Internet.

But early last year, one of the project's scientists, Dr Craig Venter, left to set up the company Celera Genomics. Despite assurances earlier this year to the US Congress that Celera's discoveries would be freely available, Dr Venter is now seeking to patent more than 6,000 pieces of genetic information.

Scientists 'distressed'

Scientists at the UK base of the Human Genome Project told the BBC that they are "distressed" by Celera's decision to patent.

Dr Mike Dexter said the Wellcome Trust, one of the project's major backers, would launch a legal battle in the US courts to challenge the legitimacy of patenting human genes.

He added that more than a third of the human genome is already available on the Internet, with up to 90% of it due to be published by March next year.

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