Letter: Patent law moving in on human genes

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Sir: I note with interest your report on the patent granted to Biocyte relating to the use of umbilical cord stem cells in therapy. This is an area in which the Leukaemia Research Fund is supporting a major research programme at the University of Bristol.

Although the patent in question relates to use of umbilical cord stem cells the umbilical cord is not the only source of stem cells. The essence of bone marrow transplantation is the presence within the marrow of stem cells capable of producing all types of blood cells. New techniques also permit the harvesting of these vital stem cells from circulating blood. The significance of using umbilical cord stem cells is the feasibility of establishing banks of frozen cord blood stem cells. The Leukaemia Research Fund in partnership with the National Blood Authority have recently been awarded a grant by the National Lottery to establish a cord blood bank in Bristol. This will form a part of a national network of banks. There is a further probable benefit in that stem cells from a newborn infant (which are immunologically naive) may not require such exact matching with the recipient as those from an adult donor.

It would be unfortunate if commercial considerations were to block the potential benefits of these new therapeutic options. The Leukaemia Research Fund, along with other interested parties, hopes for a vigorous public debate.

KEN CAMPBELL

Information Officer

Leukaemia Research Fund

London WC1

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