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Argument: Gene patents impair research on diseases

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Julian Borger. "Rush to patent genes stalls cures for disease." December 15, 2009: Vital medical research aimed at developing screening methods and cures for congenital diseases is being stifled by the rush to patent human genes and the corporate use of those patents to maximise profits.

A poll of American laboratory directors found that a quarter of them had received letters from lawyers acting for biotechnology companies ordering them to stop carrying out clinical tests designed to spot early warning signs for Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer and an array of other disorders.

Although the sharpest impact on scientific research has been witnessed in the US, under World Trade Organisation rules many of the patents are applicable worldwide. They could inhibit ground-breaking studies in Britain and other scientific centres.

So great is the perceived threat to medical research that a group of American doctors and scientists have issued a protest saying: "The use of patents or exorbitant licensing fees to prevent physicians and clinical laboratories from performing genetic tests limits access to medical care, jeopardises the quality of medical care, and unreasonably raises its cost."

According to the survey, carried out by researchers in California and Pennsylvania, half the laboratories questioned said they had stopped work on developing screening because they knew a patent had been licensed or was pending.

Some of the research scientists who pioneered work on isolating and identifying genetic deformities linked to serious diseases are now saying the pace of research and the spread of ideas has been stultified by the fear of being sued by patent licence holders.

'I've been at conferences where we have been addressed by patent lawyers and told to stop showing our colleagues our notebooks, or think twice about submitting an abstract at a meeting," said Jonathan King, a genetic researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's a common experience at scientific meetings for people to withhold information because they have a patent pending. Progress is being slowed down.'"

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