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Patents Mouse Ruling: Hindrance or Help to Genomics Research?

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An unexpected ruling in the Canadian Supreme Court blocked a patent application by Harvard University for its genetically altered oncomouse, whose genome had been tweaked to advance cancer research. According to the majority in the split 5-4 decision, Canadian law does not provide patent protection for “higher life forms” such as mammals.

Harvard’s oncomouse — not unlike the knockout mice that many genomics firms base their science on — is patented in the US, much of Europe, and Japan. “We will be the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t recognize patents for higher life forms,” says Janet Lambert, president of BioteCanada, the country’s biotech industry organization.

She sees it as a potential stumbling block for a country that has focused on attracting the industry with major funding agencies such as Genome Canada. That effort has paid off. According to Lambert, Canada is host to the world’s second largest biotech industry.

“Pragmatically, there will not be a difference today and tomorrow,” she says. “It’s really the day after tomorrow.” Her concern: scientists seeking patent protection for their work will leave Canada, or at least not come to Canada, eroding the country’s life sciences terrain.

But not everyone shares Lambert’s fears. Tom Hudson, head of the Montreal Genome Centre, doesn’t see the ruling having much of an impact on genomics researchers. “This is not … ‘Can we patent a gene, can we patent a drug?’” he says. He feels the ruling was appropriately cautious: “It was, ‘Let’s be careful about how we word this and make decisions for now and future generations.’” When it comes right down to it, he points out, Canadian companies can still get a patent on, say, a mouse — simply by applying in the US.

An ancillary effect, Hudson says, could even speed up research. “People are overprotecting research tools,” he argues, referring partly to the oncomouse. “It can inhibit research.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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