Patent Official Says DNA Fragments Patentable

SEATTLE--Apparently ending several years of uncertainty, an official of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) revealed here today that the government intends to grant patents on expressed sequence tags (ESTs), human DNA sequences of up to a few hundred base pairs in length that can be used to identify and detect the expression of specific genes. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW), PTO acting deputy commissioner of patents and trademarks Lawrence Goffney said that the office "has decided to allow claims to ESTs based on their utility as probes." Some experts at the meeting criticized the PTO's apparent policy decision.

Goffney said that established policy recognizes the patentability of works that are useful only as tools, and that even a small amount of utility meets the legal requirement of a patent. "We give patents for screwdriver blades with a new slope every day," Goffney stated, noting, however, that he had personally argued against the decision to allow patents on ESTs. Goffney did not reveal which patent applications would be the first to benefit from the new policy, and other PTO officials could not be reached for further comment before ScienceNOW went to press.

The decision is unlikely to put to rest the controversy over the patentability of ESTs. Robert H. Benson of Human Genome Sciences in Rockville, Maryland, which has aggressively sought to patent human DNA sequences, expressed satisfaction with the decision, saying he now looked forward to receiving good news from the patent office in the near future. Some academic scientists who fear restrictions on their access to DNA sequences, on the other hand, are not pleased. Says Leroy Hood of the University of Washington, "I am not surprised by this decision, because the patent office has done stupid things before, but I am dismayed."