From junkyard to goldmine? Aussie company asserts its rights to “junk DNA”

Australian biotech company Genetic Technologies (GTG) has commenced proceedings in the United States against nine other life sciences companies which it says are exploiting GTG’s patented non-coding (or “junk”) DNA technology without GTG’s permission.

GTG filed its complaint in the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin against the companies, including Beckman Coulter, Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred International.  GTG alleges that these companies have infringed its patent for methods of analysing non-coding DNA sequences through diagnostic testing, research and analysis of non-coding DNA without GTG’s permission or licence.

Commonly referred to as “junk DNA”, it was originally thought that non-coding sequences, which comprise about 95% of a living organism’s genome, were useless strands of functionless DNA.  Research is now showing that junk DNA plays an important role in gene regulation, and can be used in genetic analysis and gene mapping.  At the time, GTG was the first company to realise this and has since been granted patents around the world for particular uses of non-coding DNA in genetic analysis and gene mapping.  The technology has been licensed globally and has generated approximately $50 million in licence fees for GTG.

This is not the first time that GTG has sought to enforce its patent rights.  In 2005 the company settled court proceedings against Applera for infringement of the same patent and the terms of the settlement included a licence for Applera to use the non-coding DNA technology covered by the patent.  And in 2008 GTG created headlines by asserting its exclusive rights to administer a diagnostic test for breast cancer based on patents for the BRCA genes, a position from which it subsequently retreated.

The issue of gene patents is one currently under scrutiny in Australia and the US.

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