Patent law may stunt genetic therapies

August 10, 2001

Gene patenting legislation could cripple the development of genetic tests and therapies, according to a British Medical Association paper published this week, writes Caroline Davis.

The BMA discussion paper on gene patenting, published on Monday, says the law is too broad, contradictory and vague. It wants to see patents for a gene sequence restricted to a particular and specific use, protecting current knowledge but not what could be discovered in the future.

For example, a patent for a gene sequence linked to breast cancer should not restrict research and therapies for other uses, such as research into ovarian cancer, unless specified.

But the BMA is also keen to prevent an overly restrictive regime, where commercial companies do not want to invest money because they cannot protect their research.

Vivien Nathanson, the BMA's head of health policy, said: "We believe that both too little, but also too much, restriction on gene patenting may be harmful.

"The crucial issue is to decide where the line should be drawn to ensure that any patent protection awarded matches the amount of innovative work involved."

The Netherlands, Norway and Italy have challenged the 1998 European Commission directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions. UK law incorporates the directive.

The legislation prohibits patenting gene sequences if they form part of a human body. But sequences are allowed to be patented if they can be isolated and meet the standard patent criteria.

The BMA is recommending a code of practice for all European patent offices.

Universities are increasingly turning to patenting. A THES survey in February found 31 UK universities had full patents or applications covering 229 human genes. But many complained they could not afford to protect their patents by fighting challenges in court.

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