Academic scientists are stewing about a recently issued patent that gives a private company the rights to CCR5, a human gene that plays a key role in HIV infection. The company, Human Genome Sciences Inc. (HGS) in Rockville, Maryland, found the gene by sequencing human DNA and searching databases for possible genes; it didn't know there was a link to AIDS when it filed a patent application in 1995. The patent may leave researchers who teased out the gene's role in the disease empty-handed.
News of the patent on CCR5, a cell surface receptor that HIV uses to gain entry to a cell, gave HGS a big boost: Its stock, after declining a week before, skyrocketed on 16 February to a new high, $188 per share, gaining more than 21% in a day.
The patent decision "takes my breath away," says Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. "As a society, we have to ask if it's fair" to give the main commercial prize to the company that sequences a gene rather than to those who do the hard work of figuring out its biological function, says Gallo. Several groups, including Gallo's, that played critical roles in identifying the suite of receptors that HIV uses to slip inside cells have also applied for patents, but their claims were filed after HGS's.
"I'm flabbergasted," adds virologist Christopher Broder, a member of the National Institutes of Health team that in 1996 published a detailed analysis of how CCR5 works as an HIV "coreceptor" (Science, 10 May 1996, p. 872, and 28 June 1996, p. 1955). "It is rather upsetting to all of us to learn that this company is obtaining patents, despite the fact that we made the discovery first."
HGS's chief executive, William Haseltine, a former HIV researcher himself, confirms that he didn't know about the connection between CCR5 and HIV when the initial patent was filed. Indeed, HGS's patent doesn't mention AIDS or HIV. But HGS has agreements with pharmaceutical partners that allow them to use the gene in AIDS drug development, including a new deal with Praecis Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop "peptide mimetic drugs," says Haseltine. HGS itself will try to develop antibody-based therapies to block or treat HIV infection.
Haseltine says he understands why other scientists are disappointed and agrees that they deserve recognition for their work. HGS, he claims, is ready to share data and reagents with them: "We would not block anyone in the academic world from using this for research purposes." But if anyone wants to use the receptor to create a drug, HGS will enforce its claim.