Science: THE BREAST CANCER STORY

Gene patents were an abhorrent concept to Professor Mike Stratton, head of the British team that discovered the second breast cancer gene BrCa2, until he realised it was the only way to retain some control of a sensitive clinical tool. The British patent was granted this month and applications are pending in the US and Europe. The patent has already been sub-licensed, but for the first time the licensing agreement includes a binding ethical code of conduct.

The story begins in 1991 when geneticists from Berkeley, California located a gene linked to familial breast cancer (BrCa1) on chromosome 17. This wasn't the only breast cancer gene as not all predisposed families had it. So, funded by the Cancer Research Campaign, Stratton and a team from the Institute of Cancer Research in London hunted for another gene. Believing their set of DNA samples would not be powerful enough to highlight a new gene, they agreed to share samples with European and US groups, including one from the University of Utah.

In 1994, Stratton then located a new gene, BrCa2, on chromosome 13 and was about to embark on the hard work of isolating it when the Utah University group isolated BrCa1 and decided to set up a company called Myriad Genetics to develop its commercial potential. "At this point we decided that we could not collaborate with Utah. One reason was that it is hard to look into the future and see what could happen if a company owned a gene as interesting as BrCa2. Also, we would be in collaboration with a commercial enterprise, but our main research base continued to be samples from patients, none of whom had been asked if we could give their sample to a commercial company."

So Stratton and co decided to go it alone and what was a collaboration became a competition. "We thought this was the end of our chances of being successful because Myriad Genetics was very experienced and heavily financed. But we did it and published in December 1995 with about three- quarters of the sequence. In March Myriad published, confirming our findings, and completing the remaining quarter of the sequence."

Then came the crux. To develop a useful diagnostic test for familial breast cancer, both genes would need to be involved. Myriad had already moved to take out a patent on BrCa1 and was proving an aggressive player.

"If we didn't take out a patent on BrCa2, they could have a monopoly on that too and have the power to prevent anyone else developing a test. We are wary of gene patents, but decided it was the only safe thing to do to retain any control of the use of our findings."

Defending a patent is expensive and Stratton's funders, the Cancer Research Campaign didn't feel they could use charitable money to this end. So this year the patent was sold to a US biotech company, Oncomed, in a contract festooned with protective provisos. Chief among them - any test developed with BrCa2 must only be made available to people referred by a clinician expert in the management of familial breast cancer and who gives full pre- and post-test counselling.

There must also be absolutely no lay advertising: "We don't want any drumming up of business to increase people's concern."

In addition, Oncomed must sub-license the patent to all other commercial organ- isations that want to develop a test or therapy, providing they agree to be bound by the ethical code. Finally, no not-for-profit organ-isation, including the NHS, can be charged for using BrCa2 in any way. "We did the work in the public sector, financed by charitable donations in state institutions. We did not want to find them paying again." There's little doubt Oncomed will profit from the licence, but so too will CRC. For the record, says Stratton, he has waived all personal royalties.

How effective this ethical approach is remains to be seen. But Stratton believes trying to return science to an unpatentable Garden of Eden is a non-starter. "In the Eighties when few genes had been patented, it might have been possible to stop it, and there would still have been the incentive to produce diag- nostics and therapeutics because genes are the primary resource of modern medicine. With some genes patented, companies are only going to work on those they can get the patent on because they believe they need that degree of security. If we stop now, new unpatented genes will simply be ignored.

"From here on in, any scientists working with anything remotely developable will have to consider the implications of patents."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?