US and Japanse bio-tech firms grab DNA patents

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Science Editor

More than a thousand human genes - each present in almost everyone on the planet - are now the commercial property of US and Japanese pharmaceutical companies, according to a survey published in the scientific journal Nature today.

The Japanese and the Americans have an overwhelming hold on the ownership of human DNA - the molecular messenger of heredity - according to a team led by Dr Sandy Thomas at Sussex University, Brighton.

The US and the European Patent Offices have granted 1,175 patents on human DNA sequences between 1981 and 1995. Japanese and US companies have grabbed most of them. Not one European Union pharmaceutical company ranks among the top 10 DNA patent owners, the survey found.

The patenting of DNA sequences has proved controversial because it pitted scientists committed to expanding the frontiers of human knowledge against commercial enterprises that want to exploit their findings by charging royalties for anyone who wants to make use of basic information on the messages encoded in DNA.

Japan's Takeda has 63 patents, followed by Genentech and Immunex of the US with 41 and 23 respectively. The only European companies in the top 10 are Swiss concerns, Hoffman-La Roche and Ciba-Geigy, with 34 between them. "American and Japanese firms started off with a more aggressive patenting strategy than European concerns, which got into bio-tech later and are lagging behind," Dr Thomas said.

Public debate over the ethics of patenting DNA has grown in intensity in the past three years as the pace of research has quickened. Last year, the European Parliament vetoed a directive which would have eased the path for EU companies to the patenting of human DNA.

Many groups remain fundamentally opposed to the ownership of what they see as an inviolable common heritage of humanity. Companies, on the other hand, regard patenting as essential to the successful marketing of novel therapies based on specific DNA sequences. On commercial grounds, "that Europe's share of these patents is so small is a serious cause for concern," Dr Thomas said.

The EU has spent some 75 million ECU ($94m) on biotechnology projects, but has a stronger commitment to the early release of human data into the public domain than to creating a legal environment that encourages proprietary patenting.