Seed's inaugural edition of the State of Science explores the current scientific landscape and its emergent hotspots—along with the motivations and ambitions of the individuals charting its future.

Read more Seed State of Science 2008

Revolutionary Minds: John Wilbanks

Who owns science?
Do rights help or hinder the scientific process?

Intellectual Property

patents by country

In this cartogram, countries are distorted in proportion to the number of annual patents granted there. Today, following trends of recent decades, Japan and the US loom large—each accounts for roughly one-third of patents worldwide. Catrogram by

Case Study

Bringing Patents Into Focus

The global profusion of patents has grown so thick it can be daunting for any researcher to navigate. But Cambia's Patent Lens goes a long way toward thinning the underbrush. Founded by scientist and entrepreneur Richard Jefferson, with the Spanish and Italian word for "change" as its namesake, Cambia is leading a push for open-source licensing in the life sciences. Offering a searchable international database of nearly 8.8 million patent documents and accessible explanations of what researchers need to know about IP law, the Patents Lens project is an important step toward greater transparency. Users can get overviews of "patent landscapes" for topics like the human genome, or type in a gene or molecule of interest to get a breakdown of where it's been patented, its patent stage, how patents apply in different countries, and who to talk to about obtaining a license to study it.

Patent Activity on the Genome

chromosome 9

CDKN2A, a tumor suppressor gene marked on the graphic above, is one of the most highly patented genes in the genome—its sequences are claimed in 20 patents, all directed toward diagnostic applications, and are distributed between nine different assignees.

In a recent paper in Science, Fiona Murray and Kyle Jensen plotted patent activity on the human genome. Their results revealed that nearly 20 percent of genes are explicitly claimed as U.S. IP, which amounts to 78 percent of total gene ownership. Roughly 63 percent of patented genes are assigned to private firms. Of the top ten gene patent assignees, nine are U.S.-based, including the University of California, Isis Pharmaceuticals, the former SmithKline Beecham, and Human Genome Sciences. The top patent assignee is Incyte Pharmaceuticals/Incyte Genomics, whose IP rights cover 2000 human genes, mainly for use as probes on DNA microarrays. Although large expanses of the genome are unpatented, some genes have up to 20 patents asserting rights to various gene uses and manifestations including diagnostic uses, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), cell lines, and constructs containing the gene. Specific regions of the genome, like the CDKN2A gene, have comparitively heavy patent activity, usually with a one-gene-many-patents scenario.

Trademarked Intelligence

Patent proliferation has resulted in some questionable claims being staked across the sciences:

Intelligence Patent Holder Status
A lunar flyby maneuver which loops a satellite around the Moon to correct its orbit BOEING Though arguably invalid, it still prevented the rescue of a stalled satellite in April.
The concept that high levels of homocysteine in blood indicate a folate deficiency METABOLITE In effect, but challenged on grounds that it claims a basic scientific law—the relationship between a molecule and its metabolite.
A technique for knee replacement surgery, called the "L-I Approach" SURGEON PETER BONUTTI, OF THE BONUTTI INSTITUTE The Bonutti Institute is the only place where the L-I Approach may be performed.
The ability to diagnose susceptibility to breast and colon cancer via the detection of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene variants MYRIAD GENETICS In effect, but challenged by the European Patent Office.
The minimum number of genes required to run a bacterium—"the minimal genome" THE VENTER INSTITUTE Patent pending on discovery of the minimal genome.
Seed 19

The Fundamentals: Intellectual Property
Posted November 20, 2008
Originally appeared in Seed 19

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