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Boston 2002 Monday, 18 February, 2002, 01:01 GMT
Demand for gene patent rethink
AAAS Boston 2002, BBC
Ryan, BBC

Patients' interests must be protected as increasing numbers of genes are patented, medical ethicists have warned.

There are tens of thousands of patents on human genes already, with companies hoping to use them to diagnose conditions or to help develop treatments. But there is concern that the interests of the companies holding those patents are over-riding those of patients.

Since the sequencing of the human genome, more and more commercial companies have registered gene patents, even though it is often not known what the DNA sequences actually do, or what kind of value they might have.

Patents last for 20 years, during which time other researchers would have to pay to use the patented material.

Balanced view

The independent Nuffield Centre on Bioethics in London, UK, is to publish recommendations on how to revamp the patent system in May this year.

Dr Sandra Thomas, the centre's director, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston: "It's not going to be straightforward.

"What one's looking for is some sort of an interface between the companies who need to be strong in their pursuit of patent law on one hand, but on the other, an interface that enables patients' needs to be taken account of."

Dr Thomas said the interests of all the different parties - scientists, patent lawyers, non-governmental organizations, and clinicians - "all of whom have different, not necessarily expert views about patent law", had to be taken account of.

New products

The issue of gene patents is coming to the fore with the first diagnostic test for breast cancer genes coming on to the market.

The test, marketed by the US company Myriad, costs up to $2,000, and public sector bodies have lodged an opposition to the patent because they feel it is not in the public's interest to have such an absolute monopoly.

Patents of genetic material make it particularly difficult for not-for-profit organizations, which cannot pay the royalties they would need to access the material.

Dr Thomas said: "We're very much at a cusp where we will see more of these products becoming available."

She added: "There's no doubt that the patent system has been a force for good in helping to produce effective new healthcare products.

"But there is a risk now that as we've sequenced the human genome and that information is being applied in research, that we risk protecting the interests of the investor, rather than the interests of the patient, who's the ultimate consumer of the healthcare products."

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
reports from Boston
See also:

30 May 00 | Human genome
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