Tuesday, October 03, 2006

RNA Rising

This week saw the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to two relatively young biologists (Andrew Fire, b. 1959, and Craig Mello, b. 1960) on the strength of a relatively young scientific paper (Nature, February 19, 1998) that has rapidly spurred the creation of a young field in biology (variously called gene silencing, RNA interference, or RNAi). Fire and Mello discovered that double-stranded RNA closely corresponding in chemical sequence to a particular gene can "silence" the function of that gene. In essence, RNAi allows one to shut down specific genes very precisely. Gene silencing may allow biologists to realize some of the hopes originally pinned on genetic engineering, but to do so less intrusively, more safely, more precisely, and with a greater probability of success.

Patent filings reflect an interesting trend in RNAi inventions: gene-related inventions are declining relative to RNAi inventions. As a very rough metric, I calculated the ratio of published patent applications to issued patents in the United States Patent and Trademark Office patent database that mention "gene" or "RNAi" in the patent specification. For "gene", the ratio is 67 489:70 411, or 0.96. For "RNAi", the ratio is 8629:6952, or 1.24. That is, there are more (new) published patent applications than (old) issued patents mentioning "RNAi", but more (old) issued patents than (new) published patent applications mentioning "gene". Naturally there is substantial overlap in the occurence of these two terms. However, there are only 204 (old) issued patents mentioning "gene" and "RNAi", but 2974 (new) published patent applications mentioning both.

RNAi is on the march.

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