Biotechnology Firms Face Battle over Gene Patents

By Ramsey, Bruce | THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 21, 1995 | Go to article overview

Biotechnology Firms Face Battle over Gene Patents


Ramsey, Bruce, THE JOURNAL RECORD


SEATTLE _ Biotechnology is one of the nation's most promising industries. It also is an industry that faces opposition to its very existence.

Last month a coalition of religious groups put together by biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin called for the government to stop issuing patents on genetically engineered animals and human cells and genes. Biotechnology critics led by the Council for Responsible Genetics, based in Cambridge, Mass., issued the Blue Mountain Declaration, which begins:

"The humans, animals, microorganisms comprising life on Earth are part of the natural world into which we are all born. The conversion of these life forms, their molecules or parts into corporate property through patent monopolies is counter to the interests of the peoples of the world."

The implications of what's going on in laboratories _ and the patent office _ are very disturbing, critics say.

But the companies that are patenting human cell lines and genes say it's the implication of statements such as the Blue Mountain Declaration that is most disturbing _ because it would run them out of business and deprive patients of lifesaving medicine.

Critics focus on the moral implications of owning life. Phil Bereano, a University of Washington professor and board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, recounts the case of a U.S. patent application (later dropped) on a cell line from a Guyami woman from Panama infected with a virus suspected of causing a type of leukemia.

"How they come to own her genome is the mystical step I don't understand," Bereano said. "I don't know what it means to `own' the genes of another person. Does that mean that a person cannot mate without your permission?"

No way, said Christopher Wight, director of intellectual property for Immunex Corp., a Seattle biotechnology company. Nor could the patent holder own a person's genes. "The genes in my body are products of nature," Wight said. "You cannot patent that."

But when a researcher isolates a gene and determines its genetic sequence, he has done something new, Wight said. It's the new thing that's patentable. In the case of the Guyami woman, if an anti-AIDS drug had been derived from the cell line, for example, the rights would have gone to the patent holder, not the woman.

Maybe the woman didn't understand that, said David Galas, vice president for research at Darwin Molecular Corp. in Bothell, Wash. "There is a serious issue of informed consent when dealing with indigenous tribes," he said.

But on the broader issue he said, "When you say a human gene is patented, that doesn't mean you `own' it. That wouldn't have any meaning. What it really means is that the information is disclosed, and that the discoverer gets in exchange commercial rights to develop products for a certain period of time."

The reason patent rights are necessary, private-sector researchers say, is that their work is expensive and risky, and wouldn't attract capital without the prospect of profit.

George Rathmann, former chief executive officer of Amgen Corp., relates the story of that company's product, erythropoeitin, a hormone that tells a healthy person's body to make red blood cells. People who have lost their kidneys can't make that hormone, and before Amgen was able to produce it, patients suffered from unnatural fatigue and cold, and needed blood transfusions.

Now they get the Amgen drug and can skip the transfusions. "Those kind of people have emerged from the living dead, even getting their jobs back," said Rathmann.

Without the ability to patent life forms, he said, "I would not have been able to sustain Amgen."

The reason is not only the cost, but the uncertainty. Before the successful project, Amgen poured money into eight unsuccessful projects, including a hepatitis vaccine and interferon. …

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