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ASCO: The Two Sides of Gene Patenting

At the American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago this week, oncologists gathered at a panel on gene patenting to learn more about the subject and how it might affect their work. Session chair Kenneth Offit of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center asked the audience how many thought gene patenting should be stopped, and nearly everyone in the room raised their hands.

On the anti-patenting side was Roger Klein of the Bloodcenter of Wisconsin. Klein, who is also a party to the Myriad BRCA patent case, discussed both the Myriad case and the case of Mayo v. Prometheus, which was recently decided by the US Supreme Court. The verdict in that case — which went against Prometheus and its patent on a method for finding the right dosage of thiopurine to give a patient — was an important step in clarifying and limiting the patentability of medical relationships, Klein said. This may seem like a far-away issue to most doctors, he added, but with personalized medicine becoming a reality, doctors are going to be using genomic and genetic variants to treat patients in a number of ways — sometimes multiple variants and genes at the same time — and "it's untenable to have the individual genes and variants patented."

"We cannot have encumbrances like patents," he added. "It's obstructing our ability to gather clinical data and track our patients. … We all know that gene patients prevent us from doing things we should and could do to benefit our patients."

On the pro-patenting side was the Biotechnology Industry Organization's Hans Sauer, who said that there are more sides to gene patenting than just human genes. Although the Myriad case — and Prometheus to a lesser extent — have gained a lot of notoriety, Sauer said what is forgotten is that most gene patents are taken out on plant genes or pathogen genes that companies are using to create better ways to grow crops or develop anti-pathogenic agents. "If the ACLU is at fault for anything, it's not caring about the consequences of this fight to so many other companies," Sauer added. "These things are important and they're not often discussed in this context." He also said that patenting a gene doesn't mean a company owns it, or owns pieces of people; all it means is that they have exclusive rights to sell a product or make a product based on it for a short period of time. And, he added, it's not just about genes. If a company is not allowed to patent isolated bits of DNA, will dyes from plants, or bacteria-based biofuels, or medicinal substances be next, he asked.

At the end of the session, Offit once again asked the audience whether they believe gene patenting to be wrong. About half of those who had previously said yes conceded that they'd be willing to think about the issue.

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