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Owning the Stuff of Life

Patents on DNA have not caused the severe disruption of biomedical research and societal norms anticipated by critics. But the deluge may be yet to come
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There is a gene in your body's cells that plays a key role in early spinal cord development. It belongs to Harvard University. Another gene makes the protein that the hepatitis A virus uses to attach to cells; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services holds the patent on that. Incyte Corporation, based in Wil¿mington, Del., has patented the gene of a receptor for histamine, the compound released by cells during the hay fever season. About half of all the genes known to be involved in cancer are patented.

Human cells carry nearly 24,000 genes that constitute the blueprint for the 100 trillion cells of our body. As of the middle of last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had issued patents to corporations, universities, government agencies and nonprofit groups for nearly 20 percent of the human genome. To be more precise, 4,382 of the 23,688 genes stored in the National Center for Biotechnology Information's database are tagged with at least one patent, according to a study published in the October 14, 2005, Science by Fiona Murray and Kyle L. Jensen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Incyte alone owns nearly 10 percent of all human genes.

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