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Who Wears the Pants in the Biotech Family?

The Huffington Post's Harriet Washington says the only good that comes from patenting genes is the money made by the companies that patent them. The ACLU has called for an end to all gene patents, but Washington says they need to think even bigger, to expand the patent ban to the "plethora of patents on not only genes, but also bacteria, viruses, biologicals such as 'artificial blood', cell lines, tissues, pharmaceuticals, and even on medically important plants and animals such as Harvard's patented cancer-prone 'oncomouse,' which are indispensable to medical research." In the place of the bounty of medicines and treatments the American public was promised in exchange for these patents, Washington says, all we've gotten is a bunch of pharmaceutical and medical diagnostics companies directing the future of medical research. "Industry has focused on maximizing its fiscal return from patents and tends to choose profitability over medical need," she says.

But Patent Docs' Kevin Noonan disagrees. He says Washington is generally correct in her history of the biotech industry's development, but shows her "naïveté" when she talks about the relationship between universities and industry. Industry doesn't control medical research, Noonan says, a fact that is illustrated by how many universities license discoveries they've made to industry to be made available to the public. "What Ms. Washington refuses to acknowledge (because it doesn't support her argument) is the real benefits (or 'cures') that biotechnology has provided over the past 30 years," Noonan writes. "Nowhere in her piece is there anything about the thousands (millions?) of heart attack patients whose lives have been saved by recombinant tPA (Genentech), or the thousands (millions?) of kidney disease patients leading relatively normal lives due to recombinant EPO (Amgen), or the thousands (millions?) of breast cancer patients treated with Herceptin (Genentech)." The biotech industry has its faults, Noonan continues, but to say it makes the sole decisions when it comes to medical research is wrong.

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