A US biotechnology company is attempting to patent parts of the human genome in order to profit from its research before Human Genome Project - an alliance of government and charity-funded labs - move to ensure that sequenced genetic codes are made publicly and freely available on the Internet.
The Maryland-based Celera Genomics, set up by the gene sequencer Dr Craig Venter, has astonished the scientific community by claiming to have sequenced a third of the human genome (1.2 billion DNA bases) in just one month. He is predicting that Celera will be able to sequence the entire genome by next year - simultaneously or even ahead of the Human Genome Project. Last week, the company broke its earlier promise not to patent human genes by announcing its intention to patent about 6,500 pieces of genetic information. 'Celera's mission is to become the definitive source of genomic and related agricultural and medical information,' the company said, adding that use of its data would be available 'on a subscription basis' to universities and other companies. This comes as a blow to the British-led efforts to negotiate an Anglo-American deal to ban patents on genome research in order to help researchers gain free access to information that could lead to medical treatments.
Under the proposed deal, all laboratories participating in the Human Genome Project would have to waive their patents rights. The UK's Wellcome Trust and the US National Institutes of Health which are leading the project would publish the code of each gene within 24 hours of its sequencing. The US patents office said it has issued three patents so far and is considering up to 10,000 other applications. However, Dr Mike Dextor of the Wellcome Trust reiterated the Trust' commitment to legally challenging any patents which it considers invalid or so wide-ranging that they would restrict research by other groups.