Companies Covet Genes; Ethics and Profits Compete in the Patenting of Human Genetic Materials

Article excerpt

A heated debate over the patenting of genetic material from a man in Papua New Guinea has led to an initiative that may improve the ethics of genetic research, especially where indigenous people are involved.

On March 14, 1995 the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) patented the T-cell line of a Hagahai man from Papua New Guinea, effectively taking ownership of his genetic material. The move outraged many defenders of indigenous people, who have long seen such patenting as a form of exploitation. Genetic researchers, in contrast, point to the Hagahai case as a model for the ethical treatment of indigenous people by genetic researchers. They say that benefits for the Hagahai are addressed in a contract initiated by a Papua New Guinean medical anthropologist involved in the project.

The Hagahai patent is an example of the increasingly common efforts of research institutes and corporate interests to obtain patents for human genetic material, including material from indigenous people.

Advocates say this is necessary for the advancement of medical science. Critics, however, say that much of the research is driven by the anticipation of huge profits, that the human genetic materials are considered only as items of commerce and that the people from whom the materials are extracted gain little or nothing from their contributions.

The NIH patent is for a T-cell line from a Hagahai man whose cells were infected with a variation of leukemia/lymphoma called HTLV-1. For scientists working on the project, the discovery of this T-cell line represented a step towards a cure for leukemia. The discovery would not only make it possible to screen Melanesian populations for the disease but could also lead to a vaccine for the HTLV-1 strain of leukemia and related viruses.

But others found the patent morally reprehensible. Pat Mooney, director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), called the patent "another step down the road to the commodification of life." The patent gives NIH ownership of a human cell line that, Mooney says, "denotes the unique physical identity of an indigenous person, a citizen of Papua New Guinea."

RAFI and other groups note that, in almost all cases of such patenting, the indigenous people providing the material see no benefits from their co-operation and cannot afford the inventions made from their contributions. RAFI has condemned profit making "from the genes of poor people whose physical survival is in question."

In an earlier case, residents of the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha fought and lost a battle for control over their own genetic material. The islanders suffer from the highest incidents of asthma in the world. They were targeted by Canadian researchers who hoped to locate the gene that predisposes people to asthma.

The researchers took blood samples from almost every island resident and provided the genetic information to a California-based genomic company, Sequana Therapeutics Incorporated. With the islanders' genetic materials, Sequana signed a deal with a German pharmaceutical company, Boehringer Ingelheim, worth up to $70 million. RAFI reported that with this deal, "Boehringer gets exclusive rights worldwide to develop and commercialize the therapeutics based on asthma genes" collected from the Tristanians. Both Sequana and Boehringer expect to profit from this genetic material. Tristanians received equipment to diagnose asthma, but no aid for treating the disease.

Sequana Therapeutics and Boehringer are just two players in a vast and rich industry where patenting could mean the difference between billion dollar profits and bankruptcies. A single Internet site lists over 300 biotechnology-related companies. One of them, Proctor and Gamble, spends $2.7 billion annually on research into such things as anti-infectives and bone disease. To protect their investments, these companies rely on patents, including patents of human and animal cell lines. …