Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered a gene that over expresses in about 20% of breast cancers. In order to protect their promising find, they quickly filed for a patent.
On February 28,1953, Francis Crick walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, and over a pint of ale announced that he and James Watson had found the secret of life. Now, more than a half century later, the hereditary information encoded in their discovery is the much-coveted intellectual property that was central to the biotech boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
To date, more than 20% of human genes have been patented in the US, mostly by private firms and universities. Researchers at the University of Michigan recently discovered and patented a gene [AGTR1] that is overexpressed in about 20% of breast cancers.According to their study, the hypertension drug, losartan, could block the production of AGTR1. Tumors in mice that expressed AGTR1 were shrunk by 30% 8 weeks after treatment with losartan.
Lead author Arul Chinnaiyan, MD, PhD, director of Michigan Center for Translational Pathology said, "We suspect our analysis has uncovered a new crop of potentially important breast cancer genes. What's also exciting is this gene is blocked by a drug that's already on the market."
The University of Michigan announced that it was currently seeking a commercial partner to help bring this potential prognostic marker to market.
Although gene patenting is here to stay, "owning" a human gene still sparks debate.
Arguments for gene patent rights are:
• Capital gained from patented genes helps further R&D • Research is forced into new, unexplored areas • Secrecy is reduced and all researchers are ensured access to the new invention/agent
Arguments against gene patent rights: • Patents could impede the development of therapeutic by third parties because of costs associated with using patented data • Private biotechs can monopolize certain important genetic tests • Patent holders are allowed to patent a part of nature-a basic constituent of life.