Faiths unite to fight gene patenting

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Fears that a new European law will effectively enable companies to patent the building blocks of life have led Christian and Jewish leaders to unite in a campaign today.

In a letter to The Independent, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, links up with Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, and Keith Patrick O'Brien, the Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, among others.

They are protesting at a European directive, known as the "Life Patent Directive", which is being presented to the European Parliament this week. The religious leaders say that the directive contains "disturbing ethical, social, environmental and political issues" and that if it passed, the cost of treating patients would increase.

The directive is due to appear before the European Parliament on Tuesday, with a deciding vote expected on Wednesday. It aims to harmonise the differing patent laws in member states of the European Union, by allowing companies and organisations to patent genes or collections of genes, as well as genetically-engineered plants and animals.

But it has aroused strong feelings, because it appears to allow the patenting of existing plants and animals, and of "spare parts" of humans. An American company, Biocyte, has already been given a patent on blood cells from umbilical cords, which can be used to treat diseased bone marrow.

And the patenting of the breast cancer gene, BRCA1, has also attracted controversy. The American company which patented it said it would only charge for tests for the gene, rather than research.But scientists are still unhappy about the principle and a number plan to oppose the proposed directive.

In a letter to John Battle, the UK energy and industry minister, the religious groups write that the directive, if passed, would "give industry explicit rights to life patency, and therefore the right to monopolise the commercial exploitation of lifeforms".

They add: "If this directive were passed, merely extracting and describing a gene would entitle a company to patency, allowing them not only a monopoly control over the procedure but over the genes themselves, thus crediting them with all future unforeseen developments and applications of that basic discovery."

This, they claim, could lead to increased treatment costs and a financially- exclusive health service, while channelling research away from unprofitable areas which have a public benefit.

The Department of Trade and Industry insisted last week that the proposed directive would not change UK patent law. Mr Battle said: "Biotechnology is already driving the medicines of the future - it will be key to national well-being and quality of life." He added: "The longer this debate drags on, the greater the risk that the UK biotechnology scientists and companies at the forefront of medical research will move to the US."