Letter: Safeguards on patenting of genes

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The Independent Online
Sir: Wendy Watson ("The body in question is mine",10 July) is worried that, if the directive on gene patenting to be debated in the European Parliament this week is passed it will lead to patenting of body parts. This is not the case. The directive would expressly prohibit such a situation.

The Legal Affairs Committee voted overwhelmingly for an amendment which states: "The human body, at the various stages of formation and development, and the simple discovery of one of its elements including the sequence or partial sequence of a gene cannot constitute patentable inventions."

This is a significant clarification over the present position, under which it is perfectly possible that the scenario that she envisages will come about. Those who are worried about the possible commercialisation of genetics should be lobbying hard to see the directive in place. The European Parliament's proposals will put in place valuable safeguards - including an ethical committee charged with ensuring appropriate application of scientific advances for the benefit of human health, and a restriction on the scope of patentable inventions to exclude, for example, patents involving human embryos, which would be potentially patentable under existing European patent law.

Whether or not Myriad genetics is granted a patent on the BRCA 1 gene will be determined by application of existing statute. Even if it is, the price that it is able to charge will not be entirely a matter of its own choosing. Unlike the situation in the US, where a free market applies, pharmaceutical prices are negotiated by the Department of Health with the pharmaceutical industry. Efforts to ensure that genetic tests developed by commercial companies are available to those who need them at a price that the NHS can afford are therefore better directed at the Department of Health, whether or not the European Parliament votes for the directive on Tuesday.

ALASTAIR KENT

Director

Genetic Interest Group

London EC1

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