Mon, Apr 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

US Supreme Court
asked if firms can
patent human genes

US biotech firm Myriad Genetics plans to argue that its patents on breast and ovarian cancer genes are necessary to fund further research, while a coalition of scientists, cancer patients and survivors and medical associations says the patents have impeded research

By Karen McVeigh  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

Ellen Matloff, director of cancer genetic counseling at Yale Cancer Center and research scientist at the department of genetics, said that, in 2000, Myriad denied a Yale request to screen patients at risk from cancer that Myriad’s standard test was not picking up. A second test was later developed by Myriad to identify women who could have had ambiguous or false negative results, but only in 2006, six years after it was offered by Yale.

“Many genes have been patented before BRCA1 and BRCA2, but no one had clamped down on the way the patents were enforced,” Matloff said. “No one else has done what Myriad has done, but they could.”

“There are very few lawsuits that have come before the Supreme Court that truly effect everyone, but the great equalizer is DNA,” she added.

Eric Lander, a leader in the human genome project and a scientific adviser to US President Barack Obama, has weighed into the issue, filing an amicus brief in the case.

Lander, head of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose brief states it is a personal view and “in support of neither party,” argues that Myriad patents are products of nature, and present an “insurmountable barrier” to studying DNA, with serious repercussions to medical progress.

He asks the court to consider what might have occurred if such restrictive patents had been taken on HIV.

“The patent holder would have been legally entitled to use his patent to block anyone from observing, characterizing or analyzing the virus by any means whatsoever,” he writes.

Weill Medical College assistant professor Christopher Mason, who published a study in the journal Genome Medicine two weeks ago showing that almost the entire human genome is covered by patents, described the patenting of genes as “preposterous.”

“If I go into my laboratory, or even my home — you could do it in your kitchen with US$200 worth of equipment — and purify a gene from your own body and then suddenly, it’s no longer your property anymore, but, in the case of BRCA1 or 2, that of Myriad. That’s preposterous,” he said. “You have to ask, how is it possible that my doctor cannot look at my DNA without being concerned about patent infringement?”

“If these patents are enforced, our genomic liberty is lost,” he added.

Myriad Genetic Laboratories president Mark Capone said the BRCA gene patents concerned “isolated DNA,” which was not a product of nature, and therefore should be patented.

He said that the isolation of the BRCA genes from DNA took 17 years and “US$500 million of investment before we finally broke even.”

Capone said that without adequate intellectual property protection, companies would face significant obstacles conducting pioneering research.

In a brief to the Supreme Court, Myriad argues that the materials and methods protected by the patents were “never available to the world until Myriad’s scientists applied their inventive faculties to a previously undistinguished mass of genetic matter and created a new chemical entity.”

Capone denied claims that the patents had impeded research.

“Myriad won’t and has not impeded research,” he said. “We’ve collaborated with hundreds of scientists on papers and subsidized research.”

He said that the “vast majority” of patients have access to the test, saying that healthcare insurance meant that for 95 percent of patients, their out-of-pocket costs amounted only to about US$100. He said that Myriad had “no record” concerning Matloff’s claim that the Yale DNA diagnostic lab was stopped from developing tests for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene.

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