One Company Owns Almost Half of Marine Gene Sequence Patents: What It Could Mean for Drug Discovery

Marine Life

German chemical company BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, has registered 47 percent of patented marine organism gene sequences, according to a study published in Science Advances in June.

In this study, Henrik Österblom and his colleagues at Stockholm University in Sweden created a database of all patents on “marine genetic resources,” or genetic material from marine organisms that has actual or potential value. This database included 13,000 gene sequences from over 860 marine organisms. Marine species span from the enormous sperm whale to microscopic bacteria and plankton.

BASF’s patent accrual isn’t the only eye-catching information in this study: 98 percent of the patented sequences are controlled by just 10 countries, led by Germany, the United States and Japan.

“It is clear that the potential for commercialization of the genetic diversity in the ocean currently rests in the hands of a few corporations and universities, primarily located or headquartered in the world’s most highly industrialized countries,” the authors write in their paper.

This creates concern that one private company has control over almost half of potentially useful marine life, allowing them to dictate their use and potential profits.

Marine Biodiversity

The ocean is home to a wide variety of ‘extremophiles,’ or organisms that can live under extreme conditions. What allows them to survive is particularly interesting to scientists, who are hoping to find useful genes or molecules within the organisms.

Marine-derived molecules of interest span from fluorescent proteins used in biomedical research to natural products for human health applications, and even to ‘extremozymes’ (enzymes that can operate at high temperature and pressure) for food industry use.

The most well-known marine molecule discovered is green fluorescent protein (GFP) from the jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, which was the basis of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Molecules discovered in a species of sea squirt, Ecteinascidia turbinate, were used to develop the chemotherapy drug Yondelis. Even the enormous sperm whale has genes patented by a company called Perfect Day for making a dairy substitute.

Commercial Interest

Over the past 15 years, commercial interest in marine life has grown exponentially. Almost half of the gene sequences registered were added between 2007 and 2010, coinciding with the key negotiations and adoption of the Nagoya Protocol, an “international agreement which aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of [biodiverse] genetic resources in a fair and equitable way.” Such a drastic increase could suggest a rush to register patents before the compliance regulations were put into effect.

Even with those international regulations in place, they don’t apply to international waters called areas beyond national jurisdiction, which make up 65 percent of the ocean. The lack of internationally accepted protocols creates a ‘legal void’ on who owns the potential genetic findings from these areas and how they will be used.

The bioactive marine molecule market is ever-growing, with anticancer and antiHIV molecules representing $1 billion and $125 million annual markets, respectively, in 2005.

“By 2025, the global market for marine biotechnology is expected to reach $6.4 billion and span a broad range of commercial purposes for pharmaceutical, biofuel and chemical industries,” Colette Wabnitz, research associate at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and co-author on the study, said in a UBC press release.

International Debate

The startling statistic about BASF’s patent possessions has refocused international efforts to begin addressing the ambiguity surrounding the equity and control over marine genes.

Recently, the United Nations hosted discussions in New York City about ‘how to fairly regulate the growing exploitation of genes collected in the open ocean, beyond any nation’s jurisdiction.’ They hope to create a new international agreement that balances protecting vulnerable ocean areas and creating an orderly, more equitable process of controlling marine genetic resources without burdening efforts to discover and patent those potentially useful marine genes.

In 2013, another debate over patenting human genes resulted in a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling against their patenting, which allowed genes involved in breast and ovarian cancer diagnosis to ‘escape the stranglehold of a corporate monopoly’ created by patenting. Both of these debates give rise to a larger question: How ethical is patenting gene sequences and the DNA of living organisms?

 About BASF

BASF “combines economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility” to “create chemistry for a sustainable future.” Their portfolio includes chemicals, plastics, performance products, crop protection products, oil and gas. The company is headquartered in Ludwigshafen, Germany and employs over 115,000 people. In 2017, BASF reported $75.7 billion (€64.5 billion) in sales and $9.7 billion (€8.3 billion) in income from operations before special items. More information can be found on their website.

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