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Wednesday, 27 October, 1999, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Human gene patents defended
Celera says it will patent no more than 300 genes
Celera says it will patent no more than 300 genes
Celera Genomics Group has filed preliminary patents on 6,500 whole or partial human genes, but will take only a few of them through the full patent process, its president, Craig Venter, has said.

Professor Venter said Celera would hold to a promise made at hearings before the US Congress last year that it would seek to patent no more than 100 to 300 genes.

He was responding to criticism that the patents will thwart promising genetic research by academics, as well as competitors.

Place in the queue

The US Patent Office describes the preliminary patent applications made as being 'place-holders' and one of several factors considered in granting a patent.

Dr Venter said the concerns were based on a misunderstanding of how patent applications work. "It's just a step in the process. We have not filed a patent application yet on any genes."

But it has emerged that Celera may in fact be running behind its competitors. Human Genome Sciences, Maryland and Incyte, California, have each filed at least 6,300 full patent applications. Incyte have been granted 173.

Code for life

Celera is one of several companies competing to map, or sequence, the human genome - the entire collection of genes which holds the code for human life.

Publicly-funded researchers, under the auspices of the international Human Genome Project, are doing the same and have expressed outrage at the patenting.

Many are doing it painstakingly. But Celera is using a "shotgun" approach, sequencing random bits of genes in the belief they will all fit together when they are done.

Finished in six months

Last week, Celera announced it had delivered 1.2 billion base pairs of the humane genome sequence to its subscribers. Dr Venter believes this represents about a third of the human genome, and hopes to be finished by April 2000 at the latest.

Some of the sequences have started to make sense, he said. "We found something that could be very, very important in terms of viral disease -- a new alpha-interferon."

Alpha-interferons are natural immune system chemicals, some of which have been developed as hepatitis drugs.

Dr Venter said Celera had filed a preliminary patent application on this particular whole gene. An anonymous pharmaceutical company on Celera's subscriber list is now working to see if the gene will produce an alpha interferon protein that might be used as a drug.

Dr Venter said he thinks Celera's tentative approach to patent filings makes sense. "We are not going to spend our company's money on a bunch of patent filings. We are not going to try and get a portfolio of 10,000 gene patents on speculative basis."

The US patent office routinely grants patents on genes, the only country in the world to do so. This allows the holder to charge fees if anyone uses them for a commercial purpose. Professor Venter said it is the only way drug companies are going to use genetic information to make medicines - to invest in the research they need the patent protection to ensure they recoup their money.

Legal battle

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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26 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
6,000 human gene patents sought
04 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Gene mappers near historic goal
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