Genetic Future

Reposted with a new title and minor corrections.

i-39421e7bd9ba229079580f415be58051-sad_baby_small.jpgA sorry saga in Australian commercial genetics has apparently drawn to a close – just as another one looks set to begin.

Let’s start from the beginning. Back in 2003, Australian biotech Genetic Technologies bought acquired the rights to a patent on testing of the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 from Myriad Genetics (see comments for details). In the face of massive public opposition to restrictions on public testing for the genes, the company announced that it wouldn’t be enforcing the patent as a “gift to the people of Australia and New Zealand“.

Then in July this year the company announced that it wanted its gift back: government testing laboratories around Australia received letters warning them that Genetic Technologies intended to resume enforcing its patent, and would prosecute anyone who persisted with testing beyond a November deadline.

Predictably, the move attracted a firestorm of protest, accompanied by boardroom shenanigans that warrant an article of their own. Now, with most of the board toppled from power, the company has officially announced a reversion to its previous position: the government labs can resume testing.

Breast cancer researchers, clinicians and women can all breath a sigh of relief. However, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 patents are not the only ones up Genetic Technologies’ sleeve: ThinkGene points to a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald movingly titled “Sick babies denied treatment in DNA row”. The row in question is over a patent held by the company over testing of a gene involved in a severe congenital syndrome, which the company appears intent on enforcing – despite the fact that the high cost it charges for the test allegedly reduce its availability to patients and potentially delay important therapeutic intervention.

While Genetic Technologies bounces spasmodically from one PR disaster to another, the fundamental issues associated with gene patenting remain unresolved. Will government testing laboratories and researchers have to continue to rely on the unlikely generosity of biotech companies (and the pressure of public outrage) to continue their work, or will the Australian government come up with a sustainable solution? Will the government be able to tread the fine line between permitting corporate monopolies and creating an environment that stifles innovation in the biotech sector? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, every time Genetic Technologies blunders into a media minefield the public perception of the field of human genetics in Australia shifts perceptibly in the same general direction as the company’s stock price – an unfortunate side-effect, given the overall promise of this field for the future of personalised medicine. On the bright side, perhaps the company will implode before it manages to cause much further damage…

(Huge thanks to an anonymous reader who has kept me informed on the comings and goings of GTG.)

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Image credit: Ed.

Comments

  1. #1 Nick Evans
    December 1, 2008

    Actually, Genetic Technologies didn’t buy them – it acquired them in a deal with Myriad, after a dispute which was sparked by GTG trying to enforce its patents over non-coding (junk) DNA.

    They did a cross licensing deal, with GTG taking away the BRCA1&2 licenses, and Myriad licensed to allow research and commercialisation of some IP based on the GTG non-coding patents.

  2. #2 Nick Evans
    December 1, 2008

    I’m also pretty sure that GTG is wrapped up in the current kerfuffle over the ACTN3 gene, which was your previous post, I think.

  3. #3 Daniel MacArthur
    December 2, 2008

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the correction on the origins of the BRCA patents – I’ve fixed the text.

    And yes, GTG owns the rights to ACTN3 testing, although the media controversy over that particular patent hasn’t caused the company anywhere near as much grief as these other patents – at least not yet.

  4. #4 Orac
    December 2, 2008

    Sad to say, Myriad is a bit of a scuzzbucket of a company in other ways.

    If you look at its reps, you’ll note that they’re all young, perky, and mostly female. Unfortunately, what that means is that when those young, perky females reach a certain age, they’re no longer appreciated by the company. I know whereof I speak, as my cousin got booted as a Myriad when she hit her 40s, as did many of her contemporaries. They’re involved in an age discrimination lawsuit now over the firings.

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