Innovation in genomics is heavily weighted toward cancer, a review of patents shows.

Cancer leads the way in personalized medicine development, accounting for more than half of new patents issued in the genomics arena, according to a new report.

“It's not surprising that that's where the focus is, given the nature of cancer and the fact that a lot of drugs are only effective in certain populations,” says Gareth Williams, a partner and patent attorney with the UK-based firm Marks & Clerk, which conducted the research. “It means the field is really ideal for personalized medicine to make an impact in.”

Most of the innovation over the last decade has come from government and academic researchers, with only a small number of drug companies—Roche, Novartis, and Merck among them—earning patents in the area, says Williams, author of the Life Sciences Report 2014: Genome 2.0.

The relatively low activity among pharmaceutical companies may simply reflect their emphasis on later-stage development, as well as the field's youth, he says. It could also suggest that because government agencies and academic institutions are more directly connected to patients, they are closer to patient needs. “Companies may not have the motivation or the focus to drive it forward, except in a few cases,” he explains.

The French government began investing heavily in personalized medicine over the last decade, with a jump in patent filings beginning in 2008 and 2009, Williams says, while American investments peaked in 2006 and 2007 and have been falling since.

The cancer-related patents were largely issued for targeted therapies and genetic approaches such as RNAi and peptide additions. “There's been no real push behind any particular technology at any one time,” Williams notes.

For the future, Williams says he expects many more gene-based patents in cancer and personalized medicine, along with a growing representation from big drug companies and biotech startups.

He also predicts that China will eventually become a major player in patenting genetic advances. Historically, Chinese academics and companies haven't filed many patents outside the country, but they are starting to do so in sequencing technology, genome engineering, and synthetic biology. “I suspect that will be true for personalized medicine in a few years' time,” Williams says.