The race for commercial control over the essence of life is threatening to spiral out of control with private firms, universities and charities claiming exclusive development rights over natural processes in the human body at the rate of 34,500 a month. For the first time, research commissioned by the Guardian reveals the awesome scale of the gene rush, as investors, scientists, entrepreneurs and lawyers use powerful new technology and obscure new laws to isolate and patent the genes which make us what we are - before they even understand what the genes do.
Biotech firms say they need patent protection to recoup their investments. But the risk to society is that future medical researchers - private and public - will have to hack their way through forests of patents, paying out hefty licence fees to a host of gene-squatters, before the miracle drugs of the genetics revolution reach the market.
It's like someone buying a street and taking a toll from everybody passing through,' said Thomas Schweiger, of German Greenpeace, which is campaigning against gene patenting. Sue Mayer, head of GeneWatch UK, the independent watchdog body commissioned by the Guardian to analyse the gene patent rush, challenged the basis on which gene patents are granted - that genes, or bits of genes, are inventions'. What's striking is the speed and the scale at which patent applications are being made,' she said.
It's impossible that this is caused by a sudden outbreak of creativity and inven tiveness. Unless people look at the issue seriously, unless the rules are changed in a few years time we will find very basic knowledge and information has been privatised.' Alongside human genes, patents are being sought by organisations, overwhelmingly from rich countries, on hundreds of thousands of animal and plant genes, including those in staple crops such as rice and wheat. Patents are already pending or have been granted on more than 500,000 genes and partial gene sequences in living organisms.
When GeneWatch UK began its database search last month, patents had been granted or were pending on 126,672 whole or partial human genes. As of this week, however, that number had rocketed by over 34,500 to 161,195, an increase of 27%. The Guardian's research found that:
One firm alone, Genset of France, has applied for patents covering 36,083 human gene sequences. Patents are pending ongenes controlling processes in the human heart, teeth, tongue, colon, skin, brain, bone, ear, lung, liver, kidney, sperm, blood and immune system. The US Department of Health is the world's fifth biggest recorded gene patenter, with applications pending or granted on almost 3,000 sequences 152 patents have been applied for on rice, 21 on HIV, 13 on the eucalyptus tree and 11 on the spider. Among gene patent applicants are Queen Elizabeth college, Dublin (human eye), York University (rice), the Wellcome Foundation (HIV) and ICI (eucalyptus).
Gene patenters are overwhelmingly from the US, western Europe and Japan. Opponents of gene patenting believe companies using genetic information to develop real therapies and diagnostic techniques should be able to use the patent system to claw back the huge investment involved. But they object to firms and other organisations being granted patents for genes when they cannot specify what the genes will be used for.
Genes are isolated by computers on a routine basis,' said Mr Schweiger. There's no special intellectual work required. Even if the gene patenter doesn't ever develop a new drug or therapy with the gene, and somebody else does all the investment to find out what use can be made of the gene, all the investment is done by the second company and the first company still gets the money." Concern is growing in continental Europe over an EU directive adopted two years ago which makes it easier to patent genes. In June, the French president Jacques Chirac wrote to the head of the European commission, Romano Prodi, saying that gene patenting should not be permitted.
Yet delegates to a rare diplomatic conference to revise the treaty governing European patent law, opening in Munich on Monday, are not even planning to discuss gene patenting. The British delegate, Alison Brimelow, said yesterday the issue would not be discussed until next year. The British government has strongly supported liberalisation of the laws on gene patenting, hoping to nurture its own biotech industry and fearful the anti-GM backlash would persuade European and US biotech investors to relocate.
Much of the pressure to liberalise European gene patenting laws has come from the US. Last year the chairman of US drugs firm Pfizer, William Steere, said: Europe seems to be entering a period of the dark ages, where witchcraft and sorcery are prevailing.' The sentiment was shared by Andre Pernet, Genset chief executive. I think the fear generated by the decoding of the human genome, that somehow people's essence' would be captured, has carried over into the gene patenting debate. You don't want to patent a gene and then just watch the patent time deadline melt away like a block of ice. There's no money to be made unless you really want to develop a drug.
By James Meek - Science Correspondent
The Guardian (London) 11-15-00