Page last updated at 16:06 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 17:06 UK

Sulston argues for open medicine

By Matt McGrath
BBC science correspondent

John Sulston (SPL)

A Nobel Prize-winning scientist has hit out at what he terms the "moral corruption" of the medical industry.

Britain's Sir John Sulston says that profits are taking precedence over the needs of patients, particularly in the developing world.

He was speaking at the launch of a new research institute into science, ethics and innovation.

Sir John shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for medicine for his work on the genetics controlling cell division.

He is well known for his commitment to public medicine and his opposition to the privatisation of scientific information.

Eight years ago he led the fight to keep the data being derived from the Human Genome Project open and free to any scientist who wanted to use it.

'Fair access'

He says there is now great concern among researchers about private companies patenting genes and genetic tests. He is also concerned about the misuse of information, and what he terms "disease mongering".

He is taking these concerns over the direction that science and medicine are going in, onto a broader stage.

Sir John is to be the chairman of a new UK-based institute that will research the ethical questions raised by science and innovation.

He wants the group to try to provide ground rules and guidance on issues such as the patenting of genes, and how people in developing countries have fair access to medicines.

Sir John believes that our current systems place the needs of shareholders ahead of the needs of patients.

Treaty requirement

The Nobel Laureate told the BBC: "Some people would say it is not corrupt because it is not illegal, and that is true; but I consider that advertising a medicine that doesn't make clear any disadvantages of the medicine, or, in fact, the fact that most people don't need this particular medicine - I would cite, for example, anti-depressants which are hugely oversold, especially in America. This is the sort of thing I mean by corruption. It's not legal corruption; it's moral corruption."

According to Sir John, the world is at a crisis point in terms of getting medicines to sick people, particularly in the developing world.

He says that the world needs an international biomedical treaty to iron out issues over patents and intellectual property.

Sir John is setting up the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation with the bioethicist John Harris.

The institute is staging a one-day conference on Saturday called Who Owns Science?


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