SITE VISIT: DNA Patent Free-for-All

Science  08 May 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5365, pp. 795
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5365.795a

Hoping to foster debate in a controversial area, a nonprofit group recently began posting U.S. DNA patents on a free online database. The purpose, writes the Foundation for Genetic Medicine Inc. (, is “to provide information on some of the most fundamental policy questions in biotechnology,” including the patenting of human DNA.

The site, run jointly with Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, contains more than 9000 nonplant, DNA-based patents issued from 1980 through December 1997; it will be updated quarterly. The full text of all these patents would cost $27,000 if purchased from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, says the foundation's Stephen McCormack, who built the database with Robert Cook-Deegan, a research fellow at the Kennedy Institute. The patents can be searched by key word, sequence, or inventor. A few clicks reveal, for example, how many claims are registered for human DNA (1914), and how many are held by William Haseltine, head of Human Genome Sciences Inc. (13). One can skim the three patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes, or the 286 assigned to the United States of America.

McCormack hopes the database will attract everyone from researchers to bioethicists and biotech CEOs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology molecular biologist Jonathan King, who opposes DNA patents, says it should be “very useful” for following trends, especially because many people can't afford the patent search services used by law firms. “The world of patent law is quite exclusive,” King says.

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