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Japan, U.S. Compete for Human Genome Rights

April 4, 2000

The Human Genome Project is an international joint research project by teams from Europe, Japan, and the United States that is directed at mapping all human genetic information by 2003. A joint Britain-Japan-U.S. research team operating as part of this project announced at the end of 1999 that it had mapped one entire chromosome of the 23 in which all human genetic information is encoded. This has drawn worldwide attention, not least because of the applications such research will eventually have in diagnosing the causes of disease and developing new medicines. Behind the scenes, however, Japan and the U.S. in particular are engaged in an increasingly fierce battle to acquire gene patents, while researchers are becoming more and more critical of corporate moves to monopolize the rights to use some genes.

Analyzing Causes of Illness at a Genetic Level
The human genome contains all the genetic information necessary for a human body, with this information inscribed in the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in chromosomes, which are in turn located within cells. The Human Genome Project aims to examine all the sequences of the four types of chemical building-blocks (bases) making up the genetic code lines within DNA, pinpointing which genes are located where. At the direction of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Japan too has positioned the Human Genome Project as one of the government's main millennium projects. The volume of information in Chromosome 22 deciphered this time corresponds to one percent of the entire human genome.

Once mapping is completed, work should proceed toward identifying the particular functions of each gene. Progress in identifying gene functions will in turn allow various causes of disease to be pinpointed at the genetic level, opening the way for "order-made treatment" tailored to patients' specific genetic makeup and causing minimal side-effects. Identifying gene functions will also reveal which diseases any given individual is most likely to contract. Whereas until now the fastest way to cure disease has always been early diagnosis after a person has actually become ill, such information will allow doctors to forestall disease before it takes hold.

The Human Genome Project itself is basic research, but in gene research, the borderline between basic research and commercial research is already becoming blurred. The competition to map genes seems likely to continue with a decided overlap between these two areas.

Warning Sounded over Corporate Monopoly on Genes
With gene research proceeding at white heat, companies and other groups, particularly in Japan and the U.S., are accelerating their efforts to monopolize gene information. While Japan has been a slow-starter in this area, in the summer of 1999, the Helix Research Institute, a venture company established as a joint public-private sector effort, applied for patents on some 6,000 genes. Immediately afterward, a venture company established by U.S. medical equipment manufacturers and other parties applied for provisional patents on around 6,500 genes.

The latter attracted worldwide attention in 1998 by declaring that it would finish mapping all human genes by spring 2000 and apply for patents on these, overtaking the already introduced Human Genome Project. In the United States, two biotech companies have already each submitted patent applications on more than 6,000 genes, with the battle for patent acquisition increasingly fierce.

This intense competition is effectively corporate jostling for supremacy in the 21st century gene business, including the development of new medicines and gene treatment. At the same time, there is growing concern over private sector moves to monopolize gene utilization. Recognition of patents could lead to expensive patent utilization fees being imposed on treatments and medicines developed based on gene information, and could also obstruct future academic and basic gene research.

A growing number of researchers are warning that human genes are finite and therefore essentially different from inventions, which have infinite potential, in that there is no alternative available once a patent has been recognized. Researchers therefore assert that gene information should be treated as a public asset.

Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.