US bid to own gene rights
The scientific world is shocked
by a US biotechnology company's plan
to profit from 'human blueprint'.
By JULIAN BORGER in Washington
US biotechnology company is seeking to patent segments of the human genetic code in an attempt to cash in on its research before British-led moves are implemented to prevent the "human blueprint" becoming the private property of a few corporations.
Celera Genomics has stunned the scientific world with its claim to have decoded about a third of the entire blueprint, the human genome, in little more than a month. It has also predicted that it could complete the job by next year, simultaneously or even ahead of a parallel, publicly funded, project under way in British and US laboratories.
The unravelling of the billions of coded sequences in human DNA (the chemical base of all genes) is expected to revolutionise medicine, and pave the way to genetically based cures. It could also open up limitless opportunities to influence human evolution by manipulating genetic codes.
Celera claims to have isolated 1.2bn of the estimated 3bn building blocks that determine the design of the human body. But contrary to its earlier assurances that its research would be made publicly available, the Maryland-based company said last week that it was applying for patents on 6,500 of its discoveries.
"Celera's mission is to become the definitive source of genomic and related agricultural and medical information," the company said, adding that the use of its data would be available "on a subscription basis" to universities and other companies.
Celera's mass patent application represents a blow to British-led efforts to negotiate an Anglo-American accord to ban patents on the human genome and to ensure that the fruits of the research are available worldwide to help combat and prevent disease.
The deal under discussion by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton would oblige all laboratories to waive their patent rights.
The British-owned Wellcome Trust and the US national institute of health, which are leading the publicly funded research, would publish the code for each gene within 24 hours of its discovery.
In the US congress, the house science committee said it might hold special hearings on the proposal by Celera, whose president, Craig Venter, told congress last year that the company's research would be freely available.
The US patent office says it has issued three patents so far for decoded segments of human DNA and is considering up to 10,000 other applications. However, Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington-based watchdog the Foundation on Economic Trends, described the patents as illegal.
"Nothing in our patent laws allows this. Under US law discoveries in nature are not inventions. The US patent office has been violating its statute," Mr Rifkin said yesterday.
Celera, alongside other biotech firms, insists that so much effort is put into isolating and decoding genes that it should be subject to intellectual property rights.
Mr Venter, a former surfer with a penchant for pet poodles, insisted company policy would not change. "There are no losers in this system. Every researcher in the world will have the human genome ahead of time," he said.
He worked on the British end of the human genome project until last year when he quit to start Celera. The company uses supercomputers to identify the codes, and such is the speed of the equipment that Celera has leapfrogged the publicly funded Anglo-American effort.
However, its methods are less meticulous and provide thinner information about what function each gene segment serves - the crucial link to combating disease. Francis Collins, the head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, said mapping out the human genome was only "the beginning of the road of discovery".
"To make it useful requires lots of additional steps that will be inhibited if you put up a lot of tollbooths early on that road and make people less interested in travelling at all."
Mr Rifkin predicted that if companies like Celera were permitted to patent genes, the costs of modern medicine would rise exponentially.
Doctors would be forced to either provide the tests or face being sued. Mr Rifkin warned: "The costs are going to break the health care system. This will not hold."
-- The Guardian, October 26 1999.
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