Breast cancer gene link found, researchers quickly file for patent

June 4, 2009
Ronald Piana
Ronald Piana

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.

The results of this exciting study appear online this week in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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.