Leading Article: Biotech price-tag on life and death

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NOW YOU know. You can't patent a mouse. (People have tried). Why not? Because the European Parliament says so. The Life Patents Directive endorsed yesterday by MEPs means that the simple discovery of the genetic material of any living creature cannot, by and of itself, constitute a patentable invention and thus be exploited for commercial purposes. So, every time a drugs company finds a new gene it cannot automatically lay claim to it. No one will be able to possess the "design" of mice or rabbits or humans. This should be sufficient reply to those who understandably fear that the big drugs firms are intent on practising "bio-piracy". The idea that corporations or governments could "own" the building blocks of life itself is indeed deeply disturbing. The European Parliament were right to reject this dangerous idea.

The directive does, however, permit the patenting of genetic materials if the "inventors" can demonstrate that they have developed a process or mechanism associated with it. So a company could "own" a very special, genetically manipulated, mouse that provides a test for our sensitivity to, say, Alzheimer's disease. The EU's decision thus preserves the economic incentive for the Hoffman LaRoches and the Zenecas of this world to invest in research. There is money to be made in the alleviation of human suffering, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. Clearly the drug companies will only invest in this exciting but expensive new technology if there is something in it for their shareholders. There is an increasing awareness of the investment potential of this field, as the frenzy of corporate activity and leaps in the stock market valuations of pharmaceutical companies attest.

In fact, the real, practical, ethical problem with biotechnology lies in the economics of the later stages of exploitation. A number of companies are developing a gene-based test for breast cancer. If this test is found to be fully reliable then it will obviously have huge potential benefits and, indeed, profits attached to it. A monopoly position for the successful firm will be reached where life or death will be rationed by price. Remember that the company that perfects such a test will have had no need to patent the original genetic material to find itself in such a fortunate position - the development of its discovery is the key element. But then it could also find itself in a similar position by inventing a conventional type of drug.

The real question, therefore, is the extent to which any kind of monopoly should be allowed to exist in the drugs market, genetic or conventional. Perhaps what the European Parliament should look at next is the regulation of these monopolies. The aim of a new independent "Of-drug", analogous to our existing utility regulators, should be to allow pharmaceutical companies to make adequate profits but not completely exclude the competition by charging excessive amounts for the licensing of products. The most difficult ethical dilemmas may well end up being decided by lay economists rather than professors of ethics or, indeed, parliamentarians.