Letter: Patent law moving in on human genes

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The Independent Online
Letter: Patent law moving in on human genes

Sir: Charles Arthur ("The mouse that roared", 4 June) omitted to mention that under the proposed directive on life patents currently before the European Parliament, both the baby blood case and the Japanese transgenic mouse would be condoned by EU legislators. Despite much controversy over this directive, already rejected once by MEPs in 1995, the European Commission is seeking to extend patent law into an area where it has no place.

Human genes and cells, transgenic animals, genetically engineered plants and seeds would all be treated as basic raw materials for the gene technology industry to exploit, protected from competition by the monopoly rights granted by industrial patent law. The TRIPS/GATT agreement permits the exclusion of patents on animals and plants, but the Commission and the biotech industry have chosen to ignore this.

Nobody wants to prevent genuine medical research, but granting patents on living material is not the way forward. In addition to ethical, philosophical or religious objections to commercial claims to have invented "new nature", there are serious doubts as to whether such research is actively promoted under the patent system. Although there is an inbuilt exemption from paying royalties on "pure" research, any "applied" research or application of the patented technology (and the living material which would be covered by the patent) requires the paid consent of the patentee. In the past, pure research was the preserve of academics. Today both pure and applied research tend to be in the hands of corporate scientists and genetic engineers. Their employers are reluctant to develop and market new products unless they are protected from competition and can avoid expensive patent infringement litigation. There are, however, alternative forms of reward, such as Orphan Drugs protection, which have not been adequately explored.

The Green Group is arguing for the exclusion from patentability of living organisms whilst retaining protection and reward for genuine innovations which may make use of genetic knowledge. This appears to us to be a practical and common-sense dividing line.


The Green Group

European Parliament