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No More Gene Patents?

By Megan Kinneyn | Jun. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Jun. 2, 2007

No More Gene Patents?

A bill in Congress that would ban the patenting of genetic material is fueling a debate over whether such patents hinder medical research. By Jeanne Wright

By Jeanne Wright
      Edited by Thomas Brom & Martin Lasden
      A bill in Congress would ban patenting genetic material.
      Researchers, lawyers, and lawmakers are keeping an eye on a bill sponsored by Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) that proposes putting an immediate end to patenting any and all portions of the human genome.
      Critics say the law, the Genomic Research and Accessibility Act, would have a devastating effect on the billion-dollar biotech industry, even though it would not void existing patents. They also say it would be detrimental to the interests of the seriously ill. According to Stefan Kirchanski, a patent lawyer at Venable LLP in Los Angeles, "If gene patents are eliminated, you are just assuring that cures won't be found, because it's highly unlikely that major biotech companies like Amgen or Genentech would be willing to invest millions or billions of dollars."
      Sharon Terry, president and CEO of Genetic Alliance, a prominent advocacy group promoting research and public policy for people afflicted with genetic diseases, goes even further: "Without gene patenting or licensing, no company would bring a drug to market."
      Such scary talk, however, hardly deters Becerra and Congressman Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), one of the bill's cosponsors. They argue that in fact it's the proliferation of gene patents that hampers medical progress, because researchers often are worried about running afoul of patents. This view is shared by Dr. Wayne W. Grody, director of the DNA diagnostic lab at UCLA. When using molecular biology techniques to diagnose genetic diseases such as cancer, he says, he's had to halt a number of tests because a specific patent holder contacted university lawyers. In one case, for example, the lab had to stop research on a gene called connexin, which is linked to about half the cases of congenital deafness.
      Another supporter of the legislation is science fiction writer Michael Crichton, who wrote an op-ed piece about the issue for the New York Times several months ago. "Ordinarily, we imagine patents promote innovation, but that's because most patents are granted for human inventions," he said. "Genes aren't inventions, they are features of the natural world. As a result, these patents can be used to block innovation, and hurt patient care."
      But from the biotech industry's perspective, Crichton and others have it all wrong. For one thing, says Geoffrey M. Karny, a partner at Baker & Daniels in the firm's Washington, D.C., office, companies and universities (Stanford and the University of California, among them) don't own our genes per se with their patents. Rather, they own the DNA sequencing of genes that have been isolated and found to be useful.
      "I think this proposed legislation strikes at the heart of the biotech industry, as far as new products and technology," says Karny. In fact, he contends the legislation is so broad that it would deny patent protection not only to genes but also to many products based on proteins.
      So what are the chances that the bill will pass? At this point, not very great, say most opponents. Even so, Karny insists that the industry can't afford to be complacent.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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