Reposted with a new title and minor corrections.
A 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.)
Image credit: Ed.