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Genet Med. 2010 Apr;12(4 Suppl):S171-93. doi: 10.1097/GIM.0b013e3181d7b053.

Impact of gene patents and licensing practices on access to genetic testing for hearing loss.

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  • 1Center for Public Genomics, Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy, Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA. shubha.c@duke.edu


Genetic testing for heritable hearing loss involves a mix of patented and unpatented genes, mutations and testing methods. More than half of all hearing loss is linked to inherited mutations, and five genes are most commonly tested for in the United States. There are no patents on three of these genes, but Athena Diagnostics holds exclusive licenses to test for a common mutation in the GJB2 gene associated with about 50% of all cases as well as mutations in the MTRNR1 gene. This fragmented intellectual property landscape made hearing loss a useful case study to assess whether patent rights in genetic testing can proliferate or overlap, and whether it is possible to gather the rights necessary to perform testing. Testing for hearing loss is widely available, primarily from academic medical centers. Based on literature reviews and interviews with researchers, research on the genetics of hearing loss has generally not been impeded by patents. There is no consistent evidence of a premium in testing prices attributable to patent status. Athena Diagnostics has, however, used its intellectual property to discourage other providers from offering some tests. There is no definitive answer about the suitability of current patenting and licensing of commonly tested genes because of continuing legal uncertainty about the extent of enforcement of patent rights. Clinicians have also expressed concerns that multiplex tests will be difficult to develop because of overlapping intellectual property and conflict with Athena's sole provider business model.

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