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8-Humans: Japan Tobacco to profit from patented human cancer genes

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TITLE:  Tobacco firm to profit from cancer genes
SOURCE: The Guardian, UK, by Sarah Boseley,4273,4297056,00.html
DATE:   November 12, 2001

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Tobacco firm to profit from cancer genes

One of the world's biggest tobacco companies aims to make billions of 
pounds from the diseases caused by cigarette smoking through deals with 
biotech companies for the exclusive rights to market future lung cancer 
vaccines. The strategy by Japan Tobacco, which makes Camel, Winston, Mild 
Seven and the menthol cigarette brand Salem, was condemned yesterday as 
both cynical and dangerous. If a successful lung cancer vaccine went on the 
market, it would not stop smokers dying of other tobacco-related diseases, 
such as heart disease and emphysema. But the arrival of a vaccine, promoted 
by a tobacco company, would encourage smoking in the false belief that they 
could be treated.

"Giving a tobacco company exclusive rights to lung cancer vaccines is like 
putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank," said Helen Wallace, deputy 
director of GeneWatch UK, which uncovered the deals. Dr Wallace is worried 
that one of the biotech companies, the Seattle-based Corixa Corp., has 
based its work on the patenting of human lung cancer gene sequences, which 
may have come from a smoker who may not have known of the commercial 
prospects that his genes offered.

Derek Yach, director of the non-communicable diseases cluster at the World 
Health Organisation, said: "We tackle lung cancer by breaking the addictive 
grip of the tobacco industry and taking action to help people quit smoking 
or never start. The last company that should control the rights to a lung 
cancer vaccine is one that makes huge profits from products that cause the 

Japan Tobacco, the third-biggest tobacco firm in the world, has paid Corixa 
for an exclusive licence to develop and sell vaccine and antibody-based 
products aimed at the prevention and/or treatment of lung cancer, primarily 
in north America and Japan. The idea behind it is to use certain proteins 
found in lung cancer tumours to generate an immune response in the patient. 
So far, Japan Tobacco has paid Corixa several million pounds.

The other contract, with the California-based Cell Genesys, was signed in 
late 1998 on payment by Japan Tobacco of 8.7m and an undertaking of 18.8m 
in research funding. In return, Japan Tobacco receives marketing rights. 
The tobacco giant also invested three years ago in the UK company British 
Biotech, which is developing a genetically engineered protein that can 
dissolve and prevent blood clots and may help prevent heart attacks and 

Public health officials and anti-tobacco campaigners say the best way to 
prevent deaths from smoking is by clamping down on the advertising and 
promotion of cigarettes. "What we have got is a company that wants to block 
the things that would prevent the diseases in the first place and profit 
from mopping up the mess that their products have created," said Clive 
Bates of Action on Smoking and Health. "It was a new low," he added.

Lung cancer is one of over 50 diseases caused by smoking, he pointed out, 
and an effective vaccine would not prevent deaths from other causes. It 
would also inevitably be priced too high for those in poor countries. 
GeneWatch says that patents on gene sequences in lung cancer tumours may 
impede progress towards a vaccine, since they prevent research by others.

Both Corixa and Cell Genesys strongly defend their contracts with Japan 
Tobacco, saying it is dealing with the pharmaceutical arm of the company 
(which accounts for less than 2% of the tobacco giant's sales) and that 
their main concern is to save lives. A Corixa spokesman said people should 
bear in mind the needs of cancer sufferers. Jennifer Williams of Cell 
Genesys said the deal was done in 1998, "when the company was not as well 
financed as it is now. It made sense for us to do that." But she said it 
was unlikely that they would seek an alternative partner.

Roy Tsuji, general manager of the media and investor relations division at 
Japan Tobacco, said the company was diversifying because of the limited 
prospects for growth in the tobacco sector. "The vast majority of people 
welcome efforts that help find drugs for various diseases."


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