Letter: Royalties from genetic testing

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The Independent Online
Sir: In her article 'The genetic goldrush' (27 April), Susan Watts raises important issues pertaining to the patenting of DNA sequences from the human genome. The cloning and characterisation of the cystic fibrosis (CF) gene from both normal subjects and CF patients in 1989 was a scientific tour de force. The knowledge of the CF gene DNA sequence immediately allowed the development of good diagnostic tests for the presence of defective CF genes.

That a royalty has to be paid for a genetic test is not without precedent, witness the royalties paid every time an HIV test is performed. The availability of unambiguous genetic tests for defective CF genes offers nothing to those currently afflicted by this debilitating disease and to those in future generations who will be born with two defective CF genes. It is for these people that the CF gene DNA sequence can be used not just as a marker but hopefully as a therapeutic agent in and of itself.

While the idea of someone else's ownership of our own DNA sequences seems outrageous, the idea of a pharmaceutical company having patent protection to develop certain chemical compounds (eg antibiotics) is widely accepted. Since DNA itself is only a very large chemical compound, there is no reason why new therapies using specific gene sequences should not enjoy similar patent protection. Indeed, such exclusive rights are essential if the huge sums of money required to bring gene therapy protocols into clinical trials are to be raised in financial


Susan Watts concludes her article on a somewhat downbeat note by saying little science is being done; on the contrary, much exciting science is being done but it is the lawyers who are making all the money.

Yours sincerely,


Sir William Dunn School

of Pathology

University of Oxford


27 April