08 April 2010

Gene patents struck down: good news!

Hot on the heels of a breath of fresh legal air in the Simon Singh case, the case taken by the ACLU in the USA to overturn the patents on BRCA1 & BRCA2 has been successful (although may be appealed). The patents have been struck down.

Here's the link to the story in the New York Times.

[Actually, this judgement pre-dates the Simon Singh case, but never mind].

Many of us working in the field of Genetics have regarded the granting of patents for genes as inherently wrong - immoral, even. Finding a gene and linking it to a disease is a *discovery*, not an invention. Genes are products of nature - the normal everyday process of biological evolution. Myriad Genetics did not invent BRCA1 or BRCA2 - they have always been there (well, since we were yeast...). Showing a link between BRCA1/2 and breast & ovarian cancer is not an invention, but a discovery.

Some short-sighted people in biotech have claimed that this stifles research and investment in the sector - leaving aside the immorality and questionable legality of patenting genes, this argument is patently (thank you) bogus. What's more, the gold-rush for gene patents actually threatens the development of the therapeutic sector by siphoning off venture capital into dead-end enterprises.

There are families where breast and ovarian cancer appear to follow dominant inheritance with reduced penetrance - this much has been known for years. In the early 1990s, many of these families were shown to have defects in BRCA1 & BRCA2. Identifying the mutations in families allows screening and therapy to be targeted much more accurately. This is a mainstay of clinical genetics and is in routine practice.

The bottom line is that we do not need venture capital leveraged by gene identification (after all, we have had the full sequence for several years now) - what we need is an incentive for VC to go into the development of tools and therapies based on our knowledge of these genes and how they participate in biological systems. THAT is where the money should be made, and THAT is where we need to see the sectoral development.

So, biotech business people, please smell the coffee. Genes are discoveries. They should not be patentable, and it looks like this is the way the courts are going to look on these things from now on (and I hope Myriad's appeal fails). Use this as your impetus to target your R&D wisely. Yes, it means you have to talk in more intelligent language to your venture capitalists, and they (and you) are going to have to learn more about biology and medicine, but that's a GOOD thing, OK?

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