GENTECH archive


Firm attempts to patent meningitis bacteria

The Guardian   Thursday May 7, 1998
   An American company has applied to patent one of the bacteria that
   causes meningitis. It could lead to royalties being paid on every
   treatment if a new vaccine against the illness is found.
   The application is one of three filed with the European Patent Office
   by Human Genome Sciences (HGS), who are seeking to be the first to own
   the whole genetic sequence of bacteria. If the application is granted,
   as seems likely, it will open the door for commercial companies to
   patent any lifeform from which they think they can make money -
   including human gene sequences.
   The prospect has appalled scientists in the field, who believe
   discoveries should be shared for the common good and that the scramble
   for patents for commercial gain will damage research.
   There were 2,660 cases in England and Wales last year of the most
   dangerous meningococcal form of meningitis, of which 243 were fatal.
   Many of the victims of the largest outbreak for 50 years were young
   children. The illness strikes quickly and is difficult to diagnose.
   Julia Warren of the Meningitis Research Foundation said: "The idea
   that someone should try to patent bacteria and then claim a royalty on
   our research if we find a vaccine had never occurred to me. I am
   stunned. It could make treating children prohibitively expensive. All
   our money goes on research: we cannot afford royalties as well. Will
   these companies accept responsibility if people die because we could
   not afford to vaccinate them?"
   The Wellcome Trust, which encourages the sharing of gene research,
   also fears the consequences. Celia Caulcott said: "There is evidence
   that commercial companies are doing research and then not publishing
   it while they look for ways to exploit the knowledge they have gained.
   Patenting the knowledge and so having the power to stop people
   developing vaccines and other preventive medicines for killer diseases
   would be an appalling result."
   Until the American applications, scientists had restricted themselves
   to patenting individual genes or microbiological processes for which
   they had already isolated a commercial use. This new blanket patenting
   of an entire gene sequence covers any future possible use of the data
   for medical purposes.
   Two of the three applications are for troublesome bacteria where
   active research is under way to find treatments. The first is
   Haemphilus inflenzae, which causes meningitis and is one of the few
   strains for which an effective vaccine exists. However, most research
   is directed towards finding a vaccine for meningococcal meningitis,
   for which as yet no patent has been applied but is certain to follow
   if this application succeeds.
   Another patent has been applied for Mycoplasma genitalium which is
   usually sexually transmitted and causes urethritus, a painful
   inflammation. The Department of Health is investigating a screening
   programme for this illness. The third bacteria causes no human
   disease, but if a gene is extracted for any medical application
   royalties would be due.
   The applications, each the thickness of a telephone directory, have
   been filed at the British Library in advance of a debate on patenting
   in the European parliament on Tuesday. This is expected to agree a new
   EU directive which backs the idea that all lifeforms can be patented
   for profit.
   Until now the idea that living organisms can be patented has not been
   thought to be acceptable on legal grounds because a patent implies
   both an invention and an industrial application. A gene sequence is
   merely a discovery and was not previously thought possible to patent
   The applications are based on the work of Dr Craig Venter, who
   pioneered large-scale gene sequencing. He originally tried to claim
   patents on small fragments of genes but has since said he is opposed
   to the idea.
   However, his erstwhile partner, William Haseltine, who runs HGS, has
   applied for 200 patents on individual human genes, and says it is
   legitimate business. "We were the first to discover these genome
   sequences and to describe practical medical benefits. We have broken
   no new ground and acted within established patent rules."
   He accepted that scientists had never before attempted to patent a
   living organism.
   Wendy Watson, of the Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline, said: "Genes
   are becoming a global currency and patents mean that currency will end
   up in the hands of a select few. We may end up with monopolies we
   cannot overrule. This will harm patients."

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