The gene dilemma: Ethics of DNA ownership under scrutiny

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A group of scientists in the United States owns the genetic material that makes a man a man. They have a patent on the Y chromosome, an issue that will fuel controversy over ownership of DNA, a key ethical dilemma of the new genetics.

Several other patents on human genes have already been granted. The universities of Michigan and Toronto have patented the human gene responsible for cystic fibrosis, although about one in 20 people carries the gene in every cell.

Some scientists and executives working for pharmaceutical companies argue that patenting genes is a reasonable way to seek commercial returns for the time and money invested in genetic research. Others feel it is wrong to allow 'ownership' of the building blocks of life.

During 1992, Britain's Medical Research Council (MRC) applied for patents on more than 1,000 pieces of DNA. It said it was forced to do so because American scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had applied for patents on many of the genes that they were studying. The US Patent and Trademark Office rejected the NIH applications, but is anticipating an appeal.

The NIH had patented genes or fragments of genes whose biological function is unclear, whereas a patent should be granted only if the 'invention' has a declared use, as well as being novel. The MRC has now in effect declared a temporary truce, by deciding not to apply for more patents.

Peter Goodfellow, professor of genetics at Cambridge University, said: 'There are those who don't think you should patent these fragments at all. I think if you can show utility for a gene then you should be allowed to patent.'

He believes the patent debate revolves around economic rather than ethical concerns. Professor Goodfellow said: 'If you allow the Americans to gain patents that cover the entire human genome, the economic consequences could be disastrous.'

Four animal DNA patents have been granted in the US. The first was the Harvard Oncomouse in 1986. Genetic engineers had made the creature susceptible to cancer.

Last year, the US patent office granted patents on three other mice - a strain whose males develop enlarged prostate glands, another which cannot develop a fully functional immune system and a third with a human gene that makes it produce beta interferon, a protein useful as a virus-attacking drug, in its milk.

The European Patent Office is reviewing the Oncomouse patent it granted in 1992, after a storm of protest. Last year, the office called an unofficial halt on all animal and plant patents to allow debate of the ethical issues.