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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The acting head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Teresa Stanek Rea, has decided to step down, Rea said in an email to patent office staff made public on Thursday. It was not known when a permanent director would be named for the patent office, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and awards patents and registers trademarks. The office, the steward of U.S. intellectual property, has about 13,000 federal employees. Rea, who is highly respected in the patent community, had been deputy director and became acting director when David Kappos, a former IBM Corp executive, departed in January to return to private practice. Kappos, aided by Rea, was popular because of his efforts to upgrade technology for examiners, reduce the backlog of applications in part by adding examiners, and improve the quality of patents that are issued. The patent office currently has a backlog of 591,665 applications, according to data from August. As recently as December 2011, the unexamined patent backlog was almost 722,000 patents. The number of patent examiners on staff in March totaled 7,778 compared with 6,420 in December 2011. Rea is a past president of the American Intellectual Property Law Association and of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was formerly a partner at Crowell and Moring LLP and is a also licensed pharmacist, according to her biography on the patent office website. She did not give a date for her departure, saying only it would occur "in the near future." Nor did she say what her future plans were. Earlier in the year Rea was said to be the frontrunner to be named to the post permanently. (Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Ros Krasny and Andrea Ricci)