Tuesday, June 5,
By Gillian Ni Cheallaigh
Commercial patents on genes are threatening research which could have major health benefits, a European Parliament select committee on human genetics has been told. The committee was hearing expert evidence as part of an inquiry on human genetics in Brussels last week.
MEPs were told by a panel of researchers and lawyers that genes should not be patented, especially since the human genome project had established that only about 30,000 individual genes existed.
The committee heard criticism of how the 1998 biotechnology patenting directive was being implemented by national courts and the European Patent Office, giving companies broad rights over genes. Gene therapies are being explored to combat a range of previously incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's, AIDS, heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.
Biotechnology companies say patents are necessary to recoup profits to pay for costly research and development for life-saving cures. They claim time limits on patents guarantee information is released to scientists after the patent expires.
An Irish member of the committee, Green MEP Ms Nuala Ahern, called for the European patenting laws to be changed so patents could be granted only for specific uses of specific genes.
"Genes should not be patentable, but should be freely available for scientific research without EU governments having to spend millions to buy back patents on genes they should never have granted in the first place."
Scientists now believe most genes have multiple functions, making each one more individually valuable, and more lucrative if patented.
One interpretation of current EU law is that product patents granted for genes on the basis of one biological function imply that if another possibly life-saving function of the gene is discovered, it cannot be used commercially without the authority of the original gene patent holder.
Dr Maria Freire, of the US National Institute of Health, which financially supports almost 60,000 scientists worldwide, said the institute had to pay original patent holders to continue genetic research into new uses for patented genes.
Leading British intellectual property barrister Mr Daniel Alexander told the committee that the extremely complicated patenting laws in the UK, based on European directives, caused confusion and "stark choices".
He said British judges, in cases of doubt, generally awarded the patent. "Where there has been an advance with medical benefits, it's very unlikely to be denied the protection of patent."
He said that annual patent rights were worth £1 billion to pharmaceutical companies, driving them to pursue patent applications aggressively. "There is reason to be a little bit nervous about holding out rights to private parties in respect of standards set by God or evolution on people and plants," Mr Alexander said.
Dr J.F. Mattei, professor of medical genetics in Marseilles, said patenting genes was unacceptable as it brought humans within the market system on the basis of the smallest part of their composition. He said a large number of genetic sequences had already been insidiously patented.
The select committee's conclusions will be published in a report to be voted on by MEPs in November.