GENET archive


4-Patents: US firm may double cost of UK cancer checks

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  US firm may double cost of UK cancer checks
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by James Meek
DATE:   January 17, 2000

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US firm may double cost of UK cancer checks

An American company which has "patented" two human genes for
breast cancer screening is threatening the work of 15 publicly
funded British laboratories that perform a genetic test at half
the cost. The attempt by the Salt Lake City firm, Myriad
Genetics, to move into the European market signals the beginning
of what is likely to be a bitter struggle over the "patenting of
life" - whether private companies should be given exclusive
rights to exploit the codes printed by nature in the cells of
every human being.

Despite Myriad's patent claims, much of the work on at least one
of the genes, BRCA2, was originally done in Britain, at the
Sanger centre in Cambridge and the Institute of Cancer Research.
Myriad filed its patent application literally hours before the
ICR published its discovery of BRCA2 in the journal Nature, and
the ICR still insists it discovered the gene first.

Myriad's move infuriated John Sulston, head of the Sanger Centre.
"On both genes, for valid reasons, there's a very strong feeling
that the way the patent system operates is neither ethical nor
advantageous," he said. "We can't quite believe it," said Dr
Shirley Hodgson of the department of medical genetics at Guy's
hospital, London. "Basically, what they think they've got is the
patent on both genes, which really has us by the short and

In a statement to the Guardian, the department of health said it
had held "general discussions" with Myriad as part of
consultations with "the whole of the genetics industry". However,
Myriad and genetics professionals in the UK said that talks about
specifics were under way.

Speaking from Myriad's headquarters in Utah, a company spokesman,
Bill Hockett, claimed that the existing laboratories were
providing a poor service. He said that Myriad was seeking
"standardisation of high quality testing" - effectively a
monopoly over screening the "patented" genes - in Europe.

He said he did not know what would happen to the British
laboratories which were providing the service. "It really depends
on discussions with the NHS and other labs we're talking to in
the UK. We don't intend to reduce the access to testing in any

"We're in the business to make this broadly available and to
allow people high quality testing, and not just what ever home
brew is whipped up in a laboratory." British gene screeners argue
that while they are not as sophisticated as Myriad, they can do
the job and are more cost-effective. While Myriad's system churns
through the entire gene, listing all mutations, the British
method begins with known "hot-spots" where mutations are likely
to occur, and only sequences the whole gene if this turns up

British laboratories charge 750 per test, half of Myriad's fee.
British genetic screeners say they have never used technology or
data from Myriad. The genes involved, BRCA1 and BRCA2, occur
naturally in human cells as one tiny part of the immense sequence
of DNA, whose coded instructions build and maintain our bodies
from the first union of human egg and seed. Researchers
discovered that certain mutations in these genes made women who
had them much more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer -
an 80% chance in the case of breast cancer.

In the mid-1990s, Myriad began filing patents worldwide relating
to BRCA 1 and 2. Most of the claims incorporated in the patents
covered technology to discover and, one day, perhaps, treat the
mutations. But the headline claims were patents on the genes
themselves, scandalising many scientists, bioethicists, religious
leaders and the emergent genetic rights movements in the United

Myriad's patent applications, like that of a series of other gene
patents by private and public bodies worldwide, have yet to be
seriously tested in the courts. But a European directive on
patents, to be incorporated into UK law this summer, appears to
accept the principle that genes can be patented.

Neva Haites, professor of genetics at Aberdeen university and
chairman-elect of the British Society of Human Ge netics, said:
"This is a precedent. In the US, Myriad has managed to convince
all the labs that used to test for this gene to shut down. If
companies see this is a successful ploy for these two genes, they
will start to exploit other patents for themselves.

"Some countries in Europe are coming out with very strong
statements about the patenting of genes, and specifically saying
they will not let their countries have their patient care
inhibited. We'd like to see the department of health working on


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