Increasing use of diagnostic genetic tests could put NHS doctors and managers in the firing line for infringing patents, it was claimed today.

British law recognises patents on the application of DNA discoveries, while in the US companies can “own” actual genes.

But doctors developing genetic tests in NHS hospitals tend to pay no heed to intellectual property.

This could spell trouble in future as biotech companies become more eager to protect their patents, experts said today.

The situation was compared with people copying CDs or downloading copyrighted material from the internet.

Dr Michael Hopkins, an expert in science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, said: “Industrial applications of genes are patentable in this country and in other countries in Europe.

“They may be enforced. The fact that they have not been enforced in the UK so far is that generally the amounts of money have been small and many companies shy away from suing hospitals. But as the sums of money increase it’s more likely companies will assert their intellectual property rights.”

Dr Hopkins and other experts have just taken part in a seminar on patents hosted by the Human Genetics Commission.

A subsequent report from the HGC calls for a review of guidelines on licensing patents and a national framework of ways to manage intellectual property issues.

Dr Stuart Hogarth, from the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, who also took part in the seminar, said advancing technology meant a new approach to gene patenting was required.

“Thus far what we’ve been doing is muddling through, but as genetic diagnostics moves into mainstream medicine we’re going to need a more cohesive strategy,” he said.

A survey has shown that a quarter of US labs have withdrawn one or more tests because of patent disputes compared with just 4 per cent in Europe.

The proportion of private labs in Europe was 7 per cent. This may reflect the fact that patent suits are more likely to be taken out against private companies than public institutions, said Dr Hopkins.

With the NHS increasingly moving functions to the private sector this could make it more of a target for patent lawyers.

Gail Norbury, consultant clinical scientist at Guy’s Hospital in London, maintained that gene patents for medical diagnoses were “unacceptable and unenforceable”.

“People will find ways around having to pay the patent,” she said. “It will be a complete cat and mouse game. The only people who really benefit from it are the lawyers.”