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Academic urges ban on patenting of human genes

by Danielle CroninCanberra Times
July 24th, 2009

Luigi Palombi

A Canberra academic has called for a ban on patents over our body's building blocks, warning these can stifle research that may produce cures for deadly diseases.

Luigi Palombi a lawyer turned academic who heads the Australian National University's Genetic Sequence Right Project is about to give evidence to a federal parliamentary inquiry into gene patents.

He has also penned Gene Cartels: Biotech Patents in the Age of Free Trade.

''I wrote the book so that we could start to tell a story about how the patent system is being used in an improper way to create monopolies over genes,'' he said yesterday.

Dr Palombi cited the controversy in this country when a company tried to assert patent rights over a genetic mutation linked with breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

The company ordered public pathology laboratories to stop testing for this mutated gene an incident that sparked the parliamentary inquiry instigated by Liberal senator Bill Heffernan.

Dr Palombi said the patent law system created in the 16th century was designed to protect inventions, which clearly ruled out genes.

''Once you break that rule and you start granting patents over things that are not inventions, you all of a sudden start granting patents over all sorts of things, including genetic materials,'' he said.

''It means that scientists ... at a practical level all of a sudden find that they are not free to use those genes freely in medical and scientific research.''

It increases the cost of research and imposes limits on ''what they can do with it''.

Dr Palombi said companies had identified genetic mutations associated with epilepsy, breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

''They discovered them at best. Why would you want to say you invented a terrible disease anyway or the cause of a terrible disease? ... it's just ridiculous to think about gene mutations as something patentable.''

Dr Palombi warned gene patents stifled research which could produce new treatments and cures for diseases.

''I do support a ban. I think we should have it very clear that isolated biological materials that are identical or substantially identical to those that exist in nature should not be the subject of a patent,'' he said. ''That doesn't mean that if you can find a way using that material in a truly inventive way that you can't get a patent.

''If you develop a therapy that cures breast cancer, you should be able to get a patent for that.''

The Senate Community Affairs Committee is investigating the impact of gene patents on the cost and provision of health care and progress in medical research.

More than 4000 patents had been granted over human genes despite the humanitarian aims behind the Human Genome Project.



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