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4-Patents: Universities asked to pay fees on the use of patented'junk' DNA

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

TITLE:  Geneticists question fees for use of patented 'junk' DNA
SOURCE: Nature, UK, Vol 423: 105, by Carina Dennis, posted by checkbiotech/
DATE:   May 8, 2003

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Geneticists question fees for use of patented 'junk' DNA

Most geneticists have never heard of Malcolm Simons. But they could get
to hear about him pretty soon when they're asked to pay for use of non-
coding DNA - sometimes known as 'junk' DNA - on which the New Zealand
immunologist has won wide-ranging global patents.

Genetic Technologies (GTG), the Australian company that now holds the
rights to the patents, is starting to assert these rights in
universities. And researchers could shortly need a licence from the
company to use any non-coding sequence in genetic analyses of any species
in their research.

"We have contacted academic research groups in Australia, New Zealand,
the United States, Japan and Europe," says Mervyn Jacobson, chairman of
GTG, who says that the company is in the final stages of negotiations
with three universities in Australia and one in the United States.

Some academics - used to the fact that most patent-holders don't ask for
license fees from basic researchers, at least until a researcher tries to
make money through commercial applications - are not exactly thrilled by
GTG's plans.

"I feel outraged," says Joe Sambrook, a molecular biologist at the Peter
MacCallum Cancer Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and author of a well-
known technical manual for molecular biologists. "I think that asking
licence fees from academic researchers can only inhibit research. If they
do it, other people will do it - and it has not been a common practice."

But under most nations' laws, patent-holders are perfectly at liberty to
ask for licences, often in return for fees from users, including basic
researchers. "Whether it is right or wrong, I don't know, but that's the
law," says Deon Venter, a pathologist at the University of Melbourne who
was recently appointed to oversee GTG's own programme to perform genetic
tests for patients' susceptibility to, among other conditions, breast cancer.

Simons first cottoned on to the value of non-coding DNA some 15 years
ago, while studying the immune system's genes. Afterwards, he
successfully applied for several patents involving access to the
information that is embedded in the non-coding DNA of all species.

Melbourne-based GTG has already amassed millions of dollars' worth of
licensing deals from drug companies, and is now turning its attention to
universities. "Researchers have nothing to be frightened of - it's not
going to be financially burdensome for them," argues Jacobson. "We are
negotiating several at the moment for a thousand dollars - which doesn't
even cover our legal costs in producing the document. We are not
intending to be aggressive or hostile, or to stifle research."

It isn't clear if universities will challenge the charges, or bite the
bullet and pay up. "We are very concerned about the patents," says Debra
Graves, chief executive of the Royal College of Pathologists of
Australasia, based in New South Wales. Graves is coordinating a
submission from researchers to the Australian government on the matter.
Several academics have said that their universities will seek legal
advice before deciding whether a challenge is worthwhile.

GTG has already attracted controversy over its licensing deal with Myriad
Genetics of Salt Lake City, Utah, which gives GTG exclusive rights to
Myriad's genetic-susceptibility tests, including those for breast cancer,
in Australia and New Zealand. "We plan to be the leading genetic-testing
facility in the region," says Jacobson.

Meanwhile, Simons, who retired from GTG in 2000, has little to show for
his foray into the DNA goldmine. Despite being seriously ill with cancer,
he has lost none of his interest in genetics, claiming that current hunts
for complex disease genes are off the mark. "I'd like to set them
straight in the time I have left," he says.

Simons' life will soon be the subject of an Australian Broadcasting
Corporation television documentary.