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Women's anger over cancer gene patents

Women from Britain who carry a gene that predisposes them to breast cancer will this week lobby members of the European Parliament in a bid to ban patenting of gene therapy.

MEPs are due to vote shortly in the controversy over whether biotech companies have the right to patent genes they find, and effectively corner the market in genetic testing.

One US company, Myriad Genetics, has already applied to patent the use of the BRCA1 predisposition gene, both for diagnostic tests and for therapeutic treatment, and has plans to start UK marketing for the test which in the USA sells for around pounds 1,500.

But Wendy Watson, founder of the Hereditary Breast Cancer Foundation and a number of other women are fiercely opposing the idea. Mrs Watson, who like many other women took part in worldwide research which helped identify the gene, will meet MEPs in Brussels on Wednesday to warn of the dangers of patenting.

"They cannot patent a gene which was only found with the help of people like me where there was evidence of hereditary cancer - nine people in my case. No company should benefit commercially from that kind of research," she said.

"It's now believed that there may be as many as 15 genes implicated in breast cancer. If different companies patent different genes, it will cost a fortune to have a test."

A potential European view on gene patenting is revealed in Article Three of the proposed European directive due to be voted on by MEPs within the next fortnight. According to pressure groups organising a briefing conference for MEPs this week, it opens the door for parts of the body to be patented.

The Euro environmental pressure group, Global 2000, says that BRCA1 is not the only natural material under threat. They say that companies are funding genes and trying to patent the process without knowing what, if any, benefit uses may result.Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline: 01629 813000